The words “Jarmusch” and “vampires” were never supposed to be in the same sentence. Yet, somehow, here we are living in a world where the proto-hipster behind Down by Law and Coffee and Cigarettes has made a movie about bloodsuckers. Predictably, the movie is not a teen soap opera with fangs or a carnival of entrail-spewing carnage. Instead, it’s more of a listless, haunting, and darkly humorous experience that plays right into the director’s strengths and slips in a few genre thrills along the way for flavor. It just might even be the director’s finest film in years. Hit the jump to find out why.
The film stars off like a good Jarmusch joint should. A needle drops on a vinyl for forgotten American classic (in this case, Wanda Jackson’s “Funnel of Love”). The man listening is Tom Hiddleston’s Adam, a burned out Detroit rocker who prefers that no one ever hear his music. He makes a call to his long lost love Tilda Swinton’s Eve (see the two names there? Get it?). who is living across the globe and it’s decided that they will reconnect. So far, so Jarmusch. Slow, deadpan dramedy from a pair of hip cats. Then they each head out to find food in their respective hometowns, and bring back big ol’ bottles of blood that they guzzle like junkies. They’ve found ways not to hunt anymore, but are still (for best results read in bad Hungarian accent) creatures of the night. However, the duo’s mellow Detroit hangout plans are soon spoiled when Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) pops up looking for fun and ends getting rather aggressive in her search for satiation. Soon Adam’s perfect oasis of Detroit hanging out and burning out is spoiled by his good old fashioned vampire responsibilities. Ain’t it always the way?
If you were to compare Only Lovers Left Alive to any other Jim Jarmusch picture, the closest thing would probably be Dead Man. The flicks are quite different in many ways, but they share one similar quality. While Jarmusch’s preference for listless wandering and rambling conversations remains, but in both films the mere presence of a genre movie label provides a constant tension suggesting that the film could explode at any moment. Jarmusch may favor dodging, subverting, and teasing genre conventions over following them, but at least the suggestion that something big n’ bad could happen at anytime that gives added weight to the slow passages. Predictably, Jarmusch is more interested in the painfully interminable life of a vampire than the gory theatrics and he explores it well, filling in the gaps with the deadpan humor that made his name. He also sneaks in a little genuine romance that’s a nice break from the Twilight-ification of vampirism over the last few years. It’s probably the smoothest film he’s supervised in years, even though it’s unfortunately not shot in black and white.
As always, Jarmusch casts the flick exquisitely. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton not only boast the gaunt physicality of junkie vampires, but also the otherworldly eeriness and British accents required for their roles. They are perfect and it’s hard to imagine the roles weren’t deservedly written for them. In particular, it’s nice that Hiddleston gets at least one role like this at the height of his Marvel fame to remind viewers that he has more acting chops than mugging star power. With Hiddleston and Swinton focused on quiet brooding, that leaves Mia Wasikowska to take on the animalistic vampire type and she does her little minx act well. Rounding out the cast are Anton Yelchin as a greasy hanger-on and John Hurt as the requisite old, wise, and burned out vamp at the top of the heap. Regardless of who Jarmusch points his camera at, the entire cast is just enigmatic and humorous enough to keep the audience in a trance.
Like all good Jarmusch ventures, the whole viewing experience is like a trance. A slow ride through rotting Detroit and blood-suckling nocturnal activities that’s hard to tear your eyes from. It may not have been an obvious combination of filmmaker and subject matter, but it is an oddly perfect one. Following the somewhat lost Jarmusch who made The Limits of Control, it’s nice just to know that he can still command a narrative when the material suits his style. As always, if you hate Jarmusch there’s no point in applying, but those who love his unique deadpan work this is the most satisfying flick that he’s made in quite sometime. Hopefully it won’t be his last.