In the Key of Jarmusch: The Music of Life (and Death)

Jim Jarmusch’s choice of music and musicians is as poetic and precise as his cinematic allusions. Music writer Simon Reynolds shows us how to listen to The Limits of Control.

In the fifth installment, Simon Reynolds follows Jarmusch to The Limits of Control.  

The Limits of Control (2009): The Music of Life (and Death)

Like Ghost Dog, Jarmusch's latest movie, The Limits of Control, has a protagonist who is a black killer-for-hire. Played by Isaach De Bankolé, the Lone Man (as he's identified in the credits) is an inscrutable, immaculately dressed, hyper-alert (he seems to hardly ever blink) perfectionist who is excessively, almost ludicrously fastidious in all his actions. When he eats a pear, he cuts it up so exquisitely it looks like a still life; when he visits a café, he insists on getting two single espressos in separate cups rather than a double espresso. 

In one of his most interesting deployments of music yet, Jarmusch calls on the Japanese heavy rock band Boris for sounds that contradict the film's repressed emotional atmosphere and crisp camerawork. Inspired by acid rock and doom-laden metal of the late Sixties and early Seventies, Boris's blissfully amorphous waves of guitar distortion seem to spill across the screen, evoking all the limitlessness and uncontrol that the Lone Man has banished from his existence. (When a gorgeous secret agent with an unexplained penchant for wearing no clothes tries to seduce him, Lone Man explains he never has sex while on a mission).

The tingling ambient horizons of Boris's "Farewell," which recurs at several key points in the movie, initially conjure a mood of swoony reverie, before the tune erupts into pummeling bombast, as if to promise the violence to come later in the movie––an orgiastic spilling of blood to release the tension built up by Lone Man's self-discipline. Intriguingly, Boris's sound is the polar opposite of the music listened to for pleasure within the movie's action by Lone Man: refined and courtly classical by Schubert. Somewhere between the two extremes lies the flamenco performed in another scene, which fuses the catharsis of extreme emotion with the poise of the staccato dance style. In a black-humorous joke, the flamenco performance prefigures the assassin's use of a guitar string as a lethal weapon. It's yet another example of the centrality of music to Jim Jarmusch's warped and witty imagination.

Simon Reynolds is a New York-based journalist and author. He has contributed to The New York Times, Sight and Sound, and Spin, among other places, and his books include Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-84 and Bring the Noise: 20 Years Writing About Hip Rock and Hip Hop.  His blog can be found at