Jim Jarmusch has never exactly been known for a riveting style of storytelling, but he takes his deliberately lackadaisical approach to a level he’s rarely approached before in this film, which literally meanders along with its protagonist for ninety minutes before winding up in a finale so abstract that it practically floats away. It might seem perversely appropriate that a picture that’s mostly about waiting should make you wait for something to happen, but what may be artistically defensible isn’t necessarily pleasurable. As many others probably have said already and others will doubtlessly think later, “The Limits of Order” is a movie that will test the limits of your patience—and without offering much of a payoff for the time you’ve wasted on it.
Most of the picture is devoted to watching an unnamed, impeccably dressed, almost supremely unemotional man (Isaach De Bankole) walking the nearly empty streets of Madrid, stopping in occasionally at art museums and, in one instance, a closed nightclub to watch a rehearsal. Ritualistically he has espresso at an outdoor café—always in two separate cups—where he’s visited by a succession of voluble figures, each of whom, after a catchphrase of recognition about not understanding Spanish and an exchange of matchboxes, regales him with a monologue on some extraneous subject (grizzled John Hurt, for example, talks about the origin of “bohemian”) before handing him a cryptic note that he proceeds to swallow with his second coffee. The notes ultimately direct him to a remote village where another contact (Gael Garcia Bernal) instructs a driver (Hiam Abbass) to take him to a heavily-guarded compound where he kills some sort of titan of the establishment (Bill Murray) with a string from the guitar that Hurt had thoughtfully provided him with.
Presumably Jarmusch intends the film to be some sort of existential parable, but what he wants to say is as murky as mud. There are repeated references to musical instruments—the protagonist gazes at surrealistic pictures of violins, and one of his “guests,” played by Luis Tosar, talks about them; Hurt brings him that guitar, and Bernal admires it—and there’s that flamingo interlude, as well as a throbbing electronic score by Boris. But that all seems more misleading than illuminating. Landmarks—like a church tower—are given some special significance, but what their meaning might be is never explained. And Jarmusch simply sidesteps what ordinary mortal moviemakers might consider obligatory narrative necessities, like precisely how the hit-man gets past all that security to confront Murray in his apparently impregnable fortress. This guy’s more Bond than Bond, it seems.
Needless to say, all the obfuscation defeats the cast, from the relentlessly impassive De Bankole (whose character apparently can’t make contact in bed with sultry Paz de la Huerta, and even his shirt never seems to wrinkle) to the pointlessly garrulous Hurt and the inexplicably smarmy Murray.
The sole stars in “The Limits of Control,” in fact, are the Spanish locations, which are very attractive, and the cinematography of Christopher Doyle, which sets them off in unfailingly striking compositions. But before long the beauty of the images pales in the face of the lack of substance to accompany them. By the time it crawls to a close, you may well feel that the picture is an elaborate practical joke, and that you’ve been had.