VIDEO: The trailer for Control
Ian Curtis (Sam Riley) of the Manchester band Joy Division wrote songs that evoke, with incantatory inevitability, terror, delight, and ecstasy. When he performed, the music took possession of his gangly frame, twisting it into the rictus of a robotic dervish. His mild martyr’s face mirrored uncomprehending enlightenment, or perhaps the imminence of an episode of the epilepsy that tormented and tantalized him. No wonder he killed himself — on May 18, 1980, at the age of 23 — after getting drunk and watching a Werner Herzog movie broadcast on BBC 2.
Control | Directed by Anton Corbijn | Written by Matt Greenhalgh Based on the book Touching From A Distance, by Deborah Curtis | with Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, Alexandra Maria Lara, Joe Anderson, James Anthony Pearson, Harry Treadaway, Craig Parkinson, and Toby Kebbell | Weinstein Company | 121 minutes
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Herzog might have been the ideal director to film Curtis’s story: his features and documentaries, including Stroszek (1977), the last film Curtis ever saw, embrace the miseries of obsessives and eccentrics who have the misfortune of opening a window into the crazy mind of God. Or the project might have been turned over to Gus Van Sant, whose thinly veiled account of Kurt Cobain, Last Days (2005), some found visionary, others unwatchable. And what ever happened to Alex Cox, who made the brilliant Sid & Nancy (1986)?
Instead, Anton Corbijn — who befriended Curtis in the last months of his life and who did much to immortalize Curtis’s image with his portraits of the doomed musician — takes control of the legacy in this evocative but conventional treatment. At times Control unfolds like a compendium of black-and-white pictures suitable for framing, Curtis/Riley posed for album covers or posters on the walls of adoring adolescents. But when the film comes down to the nitty-gritty of Curtis’s life and fate, it falls back on the Hollywood template for doomed or dissolute pop stars that’s been followed with varying success from The Doors (1991) to Walk the Line (2005).
As such, Control settles into a countdown of possible explanations for Curtis’s genius and his self-destruction. Did he kill himself because he felt suffocated by the dreary conformity of his working-class origins? Was he done in by his teenage marriage to Deborah, from whose memoir Touching from a Distance the film is adapted? (Played by an earthy, touching Samantha Morton, Deborah seems to spend all her time knocking on his door, asking, “Are you coming to bed, Ian?”) Was it guilt over his affair with Belgian journalist/groupie Annik Honoré (Alexandra Maria Lara) that drove him around the bend? Was it an ambivalence about fame, that was pushed to the crisis point by the band’s upcoming American tour? His frustration with his illness? Exhaustion brought about by the demands of his audience?
Or could it have been the abyss opened by his music? Control barely approaches that abyss. It flickers in Riley’s performance, however — not just in the actor’s spectral resemblance to Curtis, but in those early scenes in which the unformed teen listens to David Bowie in his bedroom and postures shirtless in the mirror imitating him, or when in a classroom he freezes, staring at an “O” chalked on the blackboard. Control never gets any closer to the mystery than when the music plays. Too bad it cuts the songs short, returning to the banalities they were meant to shatter.