Post-punk outfit Joy Division has risen to near-legendary status in the twenty-seven years since lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide. It’s easy to view the band’s work through Curtis’ death, which often overshadows the music. Although it’s less a movie about Joy Division than a documentary of Ian Curtis’ short life, Control refuses to indulge in melodrama, forcing viewers to confront the abject tragedy of his suicide.
The film chronicles Curtis (Sam Riley), from his roots as a schoolboy—meeting and marrying his wife Deborah (Samantha Morton) while still a teenager—to his tragic end. Curtis works in a government employment office to support his wife and young child, moonlighting as the singer for Warsaw, the band that soon became Joy Division. After succumbing to seizures, Curtis is diagnosed with epilepsy and prescribed ineffective drugs. The working-class lad from Manchester longs for escape, beyond the grayness of the town and his life at the mercy of his disease.
Curtis is driven and knows how to succeed, but he is unable to cope with his success. He rejects the love of his family for the mysterious, alluring Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara), an amateur journalist who works at the Belgian embassy. And, of course, love eventually tears them all apart.
The brilliance of Control lies in the film’s ability to immerse the viewer in Curtis’ life and the music he made with his band. Even though you know what’s coming, it’s never overwhelming until it’s too late; like his friends and family, one sees the warning signs only in retrospect.
Much of this results from the talent of first-time director Anton Corbijn, whose images subtly foreshadow the most significant events in Curtis’s life. Corbijn’s allusions become apparent later, much like the signs of suicidal tendencies.
The film forces viewers to confront their preconceived notions of Curtis, the haunted, disturbed, tortured poet. Corbijn succeeds in crafting a complex portrait of Curtis as a real person, with all of his flaws and contradictions.
Though it can seem languid at times, the film does not waste a moment; even brief shots come back to haunt the filmgoer. The film itself often flickers, reinforcing the feeling of documentary, of real life constructed from fading memories, seen through a haze of cigarette smoke and pub beer.
Curtis’ suicide remains entirely senseless, even as we come to understand his life, family, depression, divorce, illness, medications, success—in short, the inspirations for the music and lyrics of Joy Division. Control perfectly captures all of the paradoxical qualities and seeming contradictions of Curtis and his band, whose sound combines steady, hypnotic beats with passionate, incendiary performance. Like their music, much of the film’s potency is derived from Curtis and his band slowly veering out of conrol.