“The Limits of Control”
(additional reviews and links at the end of this review)
Warning: Big-time plot spoilers here, so don't read unless you weren't planning to buy/rent this movie anyway!
I saw this film back in early June and only once. I’m looking forward to another viewing, but decided that this unique film might otherwise be overlooked (due to generally unfavorable reviews) and that at least a preliminary review of my own would be useful prior to its release later this month on DVD.
“The Limits of Control” is set in Spain, home of that infamous experiment in radical societal homogeneity, the Spanish Inquisition. This lends a symbolic backdrop for the film’s theme: one man's fictitious modern-day struggle against oppression and conformity. The hero (or anti-hero if you prefer) is himself not a Spaniard but an African. He represents the Third World and impoverished people in general, the perennial prey of developed countries and their richly conceived machinations of exploitation. His target is a high-tech mogul identified in the credits simply as “American”.
The hero disdains trendy faux-Bohemians. His only lapse into indulgence occurs when he is confused by one of his cryptic orders (intentionally it seems) and stumbles upon an authentic flamenco bar. After being treated to a soulful performance, he learns that the resident artists are “among us” yet "not among us” (i.e., dedicated to beauty and free expression yet not accomplices in his specific operation). It is just a bit of R&R for the loyal soldier of misfortune. Earlier he had refused the advances of a luscious operative with whom he had stayed temporarily. This too could be construed as a form of payment or gesture of appreciation from those directing his steps. However, he tells her, “Not while I’m working”. He is no base mercenary. He is working for a higher cause. Instead of sex he keeps his body toned with a kind of yoga. There is much more to his character than an angry, fatalistic black man obsessed with lashing back at whitey.
The Nude (Paz de la Huerta):
(I don’t’ recommend trying to view or download more revealing pictures of this model/actress from the web. Even the ones linked from the Current TV website are ”booby-trapped” with viruses! Talk about your bio-terrorism!)
The hero has the ideals of an amateur, but is no less professionally trained to fight secrecy with secrecy, and to some extent, evil with evil. He must interact with a succession of eccentric characters and negotiate scenes involving illicit dealing, an apparent prostitute, blood diamonds, and even the sacrifice of agents to safeguard the mission or gain further intelligence data. All the while, he maintains an iron will and focus on his objective. No time for chit-chat with what might otherwise be very interesting acquaintances. During a mission filled with long hours and days of tedium he remains vigilant by drinking up all his signature twin cups of espresso that double as signals to his contacts.
The characters are over-the-top, but not quite in the pulp fiction sense. Nudity and violence are not gratuitous. The action is also excruciatingly slow. It is a throw-back to minimalist movie-making magic. Apart from the mesmerizing music score, it is very close to being a silent movie. The film polarizes the audience between those wanting to simply be entertained (who apparently hate it) and those who either like art-for-art’s sake or at least an original and provocative screen play. (If you think the pace of “Men Who Stare at Goats” will be too slow for you, try watching “The Limits of Control” first.)
The film is perhaps more reminiscent of Elizabethan espionage caricatures with their overtly conspicuous and self-conscious agents. There is also an Elizabethan attitude toward revenge. The hero declares that “revenge is useless”. Only persistent and calculated activism (expressed in the movie as surgical terrorism) is espoused. The modus operandi is cool-headed, patient resolve, and behaving every bit as inhuman as one’s cold-blooded oppressors! (Characters are so dehumanized that they aren’t even given proper names in the film.)
The hero constantly hones his ability to recognize subtle meaning in everything, to effortlessly parse a hostile landscape, and remove prejudices that hinder correct interpretation. In order to succeed, the hero has left behind African homeliness and naivety. He is now dealing with situational ethics rather than moral absolutes, of color rather than black and white, at least until the mission is complete and the suave satin suit he has been issued can be ditched and replaced with a more comfortable well-worn soccer outfit of African flavor. The unspoken dialog of the film is that of symbolism and abstract prophesy. It is a “foreign flick” in this literalistic modern world. The “sign language” is however straight out of the ancient world. (Compare the Gospel account in which Jesus directs the disciples to look for “a man carrying a jar”. In the culture of that day, women typically carried jars around town and not men.)
There is a biting irony in the portrayal of “American” living as a miserable prisoner in the “maximum-security cell” that is his “Control Center”. It ultimately does not protect him from the determined assassin who has been given the benefit of inside information. This snide “American” (played by comedian Bill Murray!) almost welcomes his own death once it becomes inevitable. Still, it was not possible to watch this scene with a straight face. At least we now discern that "American" (a.k.a. "The Man") was already known to us as the hollow character “Bob Harris” (also played by Bill Murray) in the movie Lost in Translation (which surprisingly received rave reviews), and it also explains why Bob’s Tokyo encounter (and own exercise in sexual self-control) with the beautiful “Charlotte” (played by Scarlett Johansson) was so strange. I knew there had to be more to that relationship than a bad case of jet lag!
The film concludes with a final “message” being delivered to the assassin. It is a blank piece of paper, symbolically an empty slate, a starting over, a cleansing of past mistakes and evils. But was the mission ultimately worth it? Did the end justify the means? Did the price paid in terms of self-sacrifice acquire the desired outcome? Perhaps that is irrelevant to one already completely dehumanized by the long-term effects of extreme social inequality.
The leader of a syndicate has been killed but not necessarily the regime he controls. The assassin was obviously recruited by an “insider”, that is, someone who knew how to defeat the security system of the reclusive puppet-master. It is likely that the idealistic assassin has only served to open the path to power for those that hired him. Nor in the final analysis can we be entirely sure that a tyrannical leader has been taken out, at least anywhere other than in the oppressed man’s imagination. Perhaps the imagination is in fact the real limit of our control, especially in the absence of any external, worldly influence. But there is always the satisfaction and triumph achieved through self-control.
This film instantly resonated with me, due to the many years of deprivation that have gone into developing the content on DomainOfMan.com, not knowing whether it will have any significant and positive impact on the world, and having to content myself with the occasional little reward life has offered along the perilous way.
© Charles N. Pope, US Library of Congress. All rights reserved.