I cannot say whether Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control is exactly a good movie or not, and this is in no small respect because I am not certain whether it's proper to call it a movie at all. It meets the basic criteria, I suppose: it was made with a motion picture camera, and there are actors standing in front of that camera reciting dialogue that was written for them, and the whole thing is projected inside a movie theater, after which I expect it will be sold for home viewing on DVDs.

Whatever it is, it centers on a character played by Isaach De Bankolé, identified as Lone Man in the end credits but otherwise given nothing in the way of identity. He is a mostly silent fellow who wears sharkskin suits and practices tai chi while trekking across Spain to complete some sort of mission. What sort, exactly, isn't made clear until very nearly the end of the picture, but since it involves secret code phrases and encrypted messages delivered in matchbooks, we can safely assume that it's probably not an especially nice one.

Oh, why be coy? He's a hitman. I've spoiled the ending, except not really, because if you're enjoying The Limits of Control, I can almost guarantee it will be for other reasons than finding out how the plot wraps up, and if you're not enjoying The Limits of Control, you'll have long since stopped paying any attention to the movie by the time the man's mission is revealed. I can tell you this, the film isn't about plot. It is not about plot to an incredibly aggressive degree, in fact.

But then, if it is not about plot, it must theoretically be about something, and this is where it gets tricky. For in fact The Limits of Control is about a great many things, maybe even too many, and unpacking them all is a difficult and perhaps ultimately pointless exercise, although pointedness is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. The easiest place to start is to claim that it's about other movies: most obviously, it's about the films of Jean-Pierre Melville and Jacques Rivette, and John Boorman's Point Blank. We know this because a) Jarmusch has told everyone who'll listen that his goal was creating a Melville film directed by Rivette (or was it a Rivette film directed by Melville?); and b) because The Limits of Control is the first work produced by Jarmusch's brand-new PointBlank Films. Though it doesn't take outside proofs to see why a movie about hitman existentialism owes a debt to Melville and Point Blank.

Then there's a scene where Tilda Swinton, playing a character called Blonde, manages to compare the part of the film she appears in to Hitchcock, Welles's The Lady from Shanghai (which also starred a famous actress wearing an inappropriate blond wig), and the kind of artsy picture where two people sit and don't talk to each other. And that's just the surface-level stuff. Look closer, and you'll spot all kinds of cinematic references: to Antonioni, to the New Wave, to Kaurismäki, and to Jarmusch's own back catalog (particularly to Dead Man and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai).

Yet The Limits of Control is also about the structure of a symphony, and to help us to notice this fact, Schubert is helpfully name-dropped a couple of times. One of the most immediately noticeable aspects of the movie is the constant repetition of phrases, in different contexts and with different inflections. I shouldn't have to go further than that: one of the primary formal elements of symphonic music is the repetition of phrases with different inflections. Hell, they're even called "phrases" in both situations.

It is also about politics and the world; a European adventure in which Americans are identified (until the end) exclusively in terms of their absence, although we learn that the spectre of American influence has literally been hovering over all the movie. There is a heavy sense of Old World versus New World in the movie that is a bit stale, maybe, but richly expressed; and by casting the Ivorian Bankolé in the central role, Jarmusch even manages to toss in an aside about how the emerging nations get treated in the conflict between major Western powers.

Then, it is about sheer imagery: the way that Christopher Doyle's unusually restrained camera captures the texture of Spain and the iconic lines of Bankolé's face. The film is a collection of beautiful shots that could be framed and put in a gallery, and it's surely no accident that several scenes occur in an art museum, with sound and editing doing their best to suggest the high drama involved in standing back and contemplating a painting.

And yet again, The Limits of Control is about a series of notions, sort of like a blog or a Twitter feed, just a collection of whatever thoughts Jarmusch had in his head: the etymology of the word "bohemian" to describe penniless artists, the molecular nature of physical objects, the ambiguity of translation, the nature of political and economic power. The film is structured to foreground these elements in the most obvious way possible: the Lone Man has to keep meeting people who give him information to the next step in his mission, but every one of those people wants to sit down and have an esoteric little conversation before they move along (some of these people are played by very well-known actors; none of them amount to more than a cameo).

I am mostly reminded of two very different Modernist texts. One of these is Waiting for Godot, the (in)famous Samuel Beckett play about waiting for an event that never occurs, focusing our attention on the nothingness in between actions. Nothing much happens in The Limits of Control, and to some people this is maddening; but to me, this is by design a film that privileges Nothing, making the fact of waiting and waiting and waiting - which is what most of us do most of the time - the central interest. Even more irresistibly, I find myself thinking that this is the closest any movie that I can think of has come to James Joyce's Finnegans Wake: a collection of random thoughts that don't add up to anything especially resembling a narrative, even though the medium of the artwork is apt to make you think that it ought to be a narrative. Both Jarmusch's film and Joyce's book have the rationality more of a dream; both are easily understood as a series of themed sections, full of insights that are intellectually clever without necessarily "meaning" anything; both are so full of references that it's unlikely that anyone but the creator can ever catch every single one of them.

The Limits of Control is something like a puzzle box without a solution. The point of the thing is to experience it, to catch all the ways it reflects outward (its copious references) and inward (the constant repetition of words and imagery), not unlike Minimalist music. Jarmusch has stripped away everything but the minimum requirements of people and a camera and movement, to leave behind the purest essence of cinema and implying that he is engaged in narrative filmmaking without actually making good on that. I can see where this would be distasteful or unacceptable to many people, and that's not only fine, it's probably necessary; any work of art that functions primarily by flaunting the rules is a failure if it doesn't bother some or even most people.

This is probably the most Jarmusch-ey of all Jarmusch's work, mostly because its weird form allows him to indulge in all of his obsessions without having to work out how to hang them on a coherent throughline. A confession: I am a hardcore Jarmusch apostle, finding him to be one of the most interesting and important American directors of the last twenty-five years. Your mileage may vary. At any rate, I admire the way that he has reduced this film to its essentials, and I think that the result is his best work since Dead Man, one of the key films of the 1990s. If one is not willing to grant Jarmusch the right to complete indulgence? I don't know. Where I see thrilling structural and formal exploration, another viewer could see so much pretentious twaddle, and that's a perfectly reasonable response. The Limits of Control is absolutely pretentious; I wouldn't be a bit surprised if it turns out to be the most pretentious movie released in American theaters in 2009. If that's a problem, then so be it. I'll just be standing back here, relishing the sense that the movie is pouring over me, letting me just watch and enjoy without needing to understand the why.

10/10, probably the most subjective rating I've ever given a film on this blog