The Lone Man (Isaach De Bankolé) in Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control is a representation of the way Europeans have characterized American cinematic heroes, like the cowboy or the gangster, for decades. And Jarmusch recognizes this, paying homage to some of his antecedents, iconic male leads in movies authored by notable European directors. But like Steven Soderbergh did in The Limey (1999), Jarmusch delivers the representation of such a figure in a way that emphasizes his otherness—an American archetype as played by a foreigner. This dissonance allows Jarmusch to comment on the artifice of cinema and its iconography in ways reflective of its history.
Though Jarmusch has implied that Point Blank’s Walker (Lee Marvin) is a progenitor of the Lone Man, let’s begin further back, looking at Clint Eastwood’s Joe from A Fistful of Dollars. In Sergio Leone’s western, he mythologizes the setting, dislocating the American cowboy, Joe, to a dreamscape that resembles the Old West in order to explore the iconography of the western. “Existentialism” is derived from the Latin word existere, which means “to stand out,” and Eastwood’s Joe certainly fulfills the existentialist archetype. The movie was shot on location in Almería, Spain, its yellow landscapes at odds with the ruddy panoramas of America’s Old West. Eastwood is the lone American in the cast—an outsider in what is a uniquely American genre—surrounded by international actors playing the supporting parts.
Jarmusch also chooses Spain as the backdrop for the Lone Man’s mission, which starts in sleekly modern Madrid, transitions to old world Seville, and finally ends up, as well, in Almería. Globalism and free trade being the modus operandi of the moment, the American is no longer an outsider in the context of a foreign land. The only way for the Lone Man to stand out is to cast a person distinct in manner and color (De Bankolé is a native of the Ivory Coast), allowing Jarmusch to examine the cinematic American “type” by inverting our expectations. By simply dressing the character up in specific clothing—a sharkskin suit that convinces one group of kids in the film that the Lone Man must be an American gangster—Jarmusch is able to use the garments as signifiers of a specific film persona.
There is something distinctly portentous about seeing a foreigner dressed as a gangster. In another nod to dream logic, the Lone Man only ever changes his outfit when he changes locales. Each of his three suits is designed for maximum aesthetic harmony, color-coded to enhance Christopher Doyle’s cinematography at any given location. This recalls John Boorman’s color design for Point Blank, in which its central characters always dress in colors complementary to the surrounding setting.
But outside of the transitions from one locale to the next, the Lone Man doesn’t ever seem to change his outfit: He sleeps in it, practices his meditative tai-chi in it—all without so much as a wrinkle or drop of sweat. Dollars’ Joe similarly inhabits his outfit. The ubiquitous nature of Joe’s attire is playfully underlined when a bartender asks, “Tell me, is that the way you go to bed every night?”
At each locale—as the Lone Man’s temporary dwellings suggest, and with the exception of an empty handbag he carries with him—his suit is his only possession. This austerity calls to mind Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967), where Alain Delon’s Jef Costello, always wearing the same American gangster’s fedora and raincoat, lives in an apartment vacant of any personal possessions but for a birdcage and some furniture. This superficial harmony between the blank character and stark setting—where the protagonist at once blends in by virtue of the void they both share, yet still stands in sharp relief to the barren location—further emphasizes the alien nature of the hero. As Jonathan Rosenbaum observes in a recent essay on Jarmusch’s film:
“... American gangsterism is a style that seems designed for export. In Point Blank, directed by an Englishman, the terrain is supposedly Los Angeles, but Lee Marvin might as well be trekking across Mars; and in Le Samouraï, directed by a Frenchman—another obvious source for The Limits of Control—the terrain is supposedly Paris, but Alain Delon might as well be holing up somewhere in Tokyo.”
As in each of the movies discussed here, the setting of The Limits of Control serves as a dreamscape in which the Lone Man operates. And like Walker (Lee Marvin) in Point Blank who sleepwalks determinedly through the minefield of his past to get to the top man of the Organization that stole his money, the Lone Man seems to progress determinedly from one meeting to the next, the meetings becoming the substance of the film more than his objective. As Kent Jones writes in “Death by Poetry” (Film Comment, May/June 2009):
“The sojourns from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Madrid to Seville to Almería, the secretly appointed meetings with a series of shadowy but finally beguiling figures, the wonderfully dry peregrinations and contemplative interludes, are in all probability acts of imagination.”
The repetitive nature of the Lone Man’s encounters with some rather eccentric characters—in which each meeting begins with the question, “Usted no habla español, verdad?”, followed by variations on the same conversation regarding life and its ineffable connections with art, science, etc.—is a comment on the repetitive nature of cinema where the viewer passively participates in a dream life, just as the Lone Man seems to passively acquire information from his own extended dream that will allow him to complete his mission. Indeed, it is the Blonde (Tilda Swinton) who confirms the Lone Man/filmgoer analogy most explicitly when she extols the pleasures of film appreciation. In this discussion, she foreshadows her own mysterious kidnapping by implying a comparison between her platinum-locked look to Rita Hayworth’s in The Lady From Shanghai (1947) and making mention of that character’s ultimate demise.
In the DVD audio commentary for The Limey, Steven Soderbergh and Lem Dobbs deny any facile influence that Point Blank may have had on their film. But there is undoubtedly an affinity between the two movies. Both feature working-class, one-named protagonists, their stories viewed through the prism of the mind’s eye. (In The Limey, it is Terence Stamp’s Wilson, journeying to Los Angeles on a single-minded mission against a representative of capitalism.) The Limits of Control also reveals the Lone Man’s enemy to be a capitalist, who the film credits list simply as American (Bill Murray). Soderbergh chooses to make Wilson an outsider the same way Jarmusch does…by making him a foreigner. So it is curious that while this hero type, the American loner, appeals to both Jarmusch and Soderbergh, two American artists, they cannot bring themselves to cast an American actor in the role. Instead, they reimagine the respective characters in each film to be non-natives and cast the villains as capitalist Americans—therefore, enemies of art. In this context, the Lone Man is a distillation of cinema’s archetypal American existential protagonist. By reflecting other such characters that came before him, Jarmusch suggests the malleability of cinema as the times change, illustrating how our sensibilities, the characters we identify with, and the way we relate to them may shift despite the synonymity of cinema’s established iconography.
Tony Dayoub considers all manner of films and TV at Cinema Viewfinder.