The prospect of a Jim Jarmusch vampire movie doesn’t seem to make much sense at first, though in the exact way that usually gets me interested in a film. But it pays to remember that some of his best work (Ghost Dog and Dead Man in particular) has come from plugging his style into some unsuspecting genre, fusing cowboys or gangsters with Jarmusch’s particular mix of moody, atmospheric American Indie. It’s a strange kind of filmic alchemy that’s produced great films before, and Only Lovers Left Alive is nothing if not great.
Vampires are often the subject for revisionism whenever they pop up these days. Someone always has to put some new spin on them, often ones that would make Joseph Sheridan le Fanu want to open his wrists. They can walk during the day, or drink colors or emotions or are made out of crystal. Jarmusch dispenses with that, delivering more or less true blue vampires, but where he makes it count is the subtext. The vampires of Jarmusch’s film are the tortured artists to end all tortured artists, Tom Hiddleston’s Adam in particular. Hiddleston, channeling 90s rockers with a fervor that borders on violence, spends much of the film swanning shirtless around a magnificently cluttered Detroit house, him and Tilda Swinton looking like they were carved out of alabaster. Adam recounts stories about lending musical insight to Schubert, and his wife regularly hangs out with Christopher Marlowe of all people, who on top of being a vampire, apparently wrote much of Shakespeare’s great works, if not all of them. Films about tortured, unappreciated intellectuals are nothing new to Jarmusch, but he seems to be going about it with a bit more tact this time that in something like The Limits of Control, or as I like to call it “The Assassination of America by Bohemian Intellectuals, a Power Fantasy in G-Minor”.
Jarmusch’s vampires aren’t about teen angst, forbidden love or disease, just being past your time and watching what contributions you’ve made to the world get knocked around, warped and reflected back, often in ways you don’t entirely like. They’re about watching a world you’ve tried to make better, or at least more beautiful, try its damndest to resist change, or change in all the wrong ways. Really, I think it’s about how good artists who die young have it lucky. How Morrison, Kobain and Hendricks would be miserable if they were alive today.
Often times, I’ve criticized movies for a lack of flow or cohesion, preferring my scripts taught and streamlined like a Lamborghini or a phallic symbol. Only Lovers Left Alive, in all fairness, would fall to this criticism if I weren’t familiar enough with Jarmusch’s work to recognize how much he seems to dig ponderous, wandering scripts, which Only Lovers has to such a degree that any real summary of the plot or story would almost feel like a lie. Really, it’s a mood piece more than an A to B narrative. The characters don’t have arcs or journeys so much as reactions to shit that happens to them. In a way, it reminds me a lot of Stranger Than Paradise. Both movies about listless outsiders wandering around life with clinical boredom and no thought toward growth or self-improvement. Both are about a sedentary existence come face to face with radical change by the sudden appearance of a female relative, both ending in a trip that turns out to be a much worse idea that it seemed at the outset. But what the film lacks (or perhaps disregards) in tight storytelling, it makes up for in mood. The camera glides around like a wraith as the soundtrack lets out mournful guitar wails and the characters float through the desolate Detroit landscape, cast in angry yellows and oranges by ancient street lamps. The film casts a haze over the viewer, a hypnotic awe so powerful I probably would have barked like a dog and given up my credit card number if somebody asked me while I was watching it.
Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are at the center of this, though, as Adam and Eve (ok, I admit, the naming is a bit lame), nailing down the air of aloof, otherwordly, detached ancients so firmly it would need a hacksaw and a strong constitution to escape. Hiddleston could act the whole thing with his lazy, measured body language alone, and Tilda Swinton’s swaggering and somehow predatory walk could have essays written about it. The supporting cast all perform admirably, but we all know who the stars here are. The always welcome Jeffrey Wright plays the inevitably offbeat midnight shift docter, and as much as the character seems cliched, I wanted to see more of him. Anton Yelchin is Adam’s only other human contact, a frazzle-haired rocker groupie, all nervous smiles and fidgets. John Hurt does what John Hurt does best, playing an ancient, sardonic old man for whom the word “incorrigible” was probably invented for when he was a young man. The only dark spot, or at least low point, is Mia Wasikowska as Eva, Eve’s younger sister and professional catalyst, who blows into the film to shatter Adam’s ordered world. She does fine as the wild, immature X-factor, but there doesn’t seem to be much to her beyond her role as an agent of change.
Only Lovers Left Alive is a deeply beautiful, sexy movie. It’s moody and angry, but with just enough hope for the future to not be totally nihilistic. It’s a vampire movie that’s only tangentially about vampires, which is really the best way to play it these days. More than that it’s about music and art and rock and roll and dying young. It’s beautifully shot, acted and scored, smoother than whale oil and dark and heady like a good stout. And yeah, I know I sound really pretentious right now. Jarmusch does that to me.