There are endless ways to film a face, particularly one with such a rich landscape as Isaach De Bankole's -- cheekbones rising sharply over deep valleys, thundercloud eyes gazing straight into the gathering storm, a wide plain of a forehead riding high above, and two thick rivers that rarely smile below.
In "The Limits of Control," Jim Jarmusch's absorbing and visually mesmerizing new crime thriller, the filmmaker risks everything on the power of De Bankole's face to carry us through. It is a gamble that pays off as the actor moves in near silence and isolation on a journey that we surmise will have a dark end.
The story opens at the Madrid airport with the arrival of De Bankole's Lone Man -- like the film's other characters, his name is symbolic, never uttered. Two men are waiting for him. And so begins a series of encounters with his contacts, marking each leg of his travels and filled with clues and coded exchanges that manage to be both comical and ominous.
Though this is anything but a fast film, it is always on the move with us tailing the hired killer through a literal and figurative maze toward his quarry. De Bankole plays a lean, hard man of few words and singular focus. His days begin with the controlled ballet of tai chi and end with him lying corpse-like on the bed, eyes open, his only fuel the two espressos -- precisely two, never a double shot -- that he orders at every cafe.
Is that a sign, like the match boxes carefully passed that always carry instructions? Or merely the preference of an exacting man? We're never sure. What we do know is that what Lone Man can control, he controls to the extreme, which is one of the central precepts Jarmusch is examining.
"No sex?" asks Nude, Paz De La Huerta's mysterious cipher, wrapped only in her musings and temptations, and, on occasion, a clear plastic raincoat. No, he answers, not while he's working.
Jarmusch has said he was inspired by a trifecta of a William Burroughs essay, from which the film's title and its theme of words as the ultimate source of control and power are drawn; French crime dramas of the '70s and '80s; and John Boorman's thriller "Point Blank." All that would put you in mind of a noir experience, where the action is tense and philosophy is left for another day. That is not what Jarmusch has given us. Instead the film is like a series of sun-saturated French impressionist paintings, so beautifully is it shot by cinematographer Christopher Doyle and so soft-focus is its narrative.
Each character enters and defines the space and the story in his or her own way, loosely linked moments with De Bankole's mission providing the connective tissue, a classic Jarmusch approach. It is an exceedingly fine supporting cast led by John Hurt as Guitar, a Tennessee Williams sort of genteel philosopher; Gael Garcia Bernal as the roughed up cowboy, Mexican; and Tilda Swinton as the trench-coat clad film star Blonde. Bill Murray, who was the spine of the writer-director's last film, 2005's "Brok- en Flowers," is just a quick stroke cameo here as American, though Ugly American would have been a better sobriquet.
As with all Jarmusch films, there is much unexplained, the ambiguities left to reside in long stretches of silence. All of which makes "The Limits of Control" a little like guided meditation with suggestions floated, waiting, left untethered. It's up to you to distill meaning -- which will leave some convinced the director is merely self-indulgent, and others deeply satisfied.
I fall into the deeply satisfied camp with what may well be Jarmusch's most enigmatic film yet. In the opening scene when De Bankole meets his first contact, he is told, "Use your imagination," which turns out to be sage advice for us as well.
'The Limits of Control'
MPAA rating: R for graphic nudity and some language
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Playing: In limited release, playing locally at ArcLight Hollywood and the Landmark.