'Only Lovers Left Alive'
Jim Jarmusch emerged as a filmmaker with a unique style from his first feature, and one of the most interesting aspects of following his career has been watching the director bend genres to his will. Jarmusch’s latest, ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’, takes the vampire genre and transforms it into a deadpan hangout movie with bloodsucking asides. It’s also not coincidentally the best and most original vampire movie of its era.
Unsurprisingly for those schooled in the ways of the Jim Jarmusch picture, the filmmaker approaches vampires not particularly interested in violent set-pieces or gothed out romance. Instead, what fascinates him about the creatures of the night is their eternal life, and the mixture of boredom and stockpiled knowledge that comes along with that. His vampires are essentially aging hipsters – cool cats with impeccable taste so set in their ways that they’re disinterested with trends of the moment, and long for a distant past that they probably didn’t enjoy that much the first time around. It’s probably how Jarmusch sees himself in some way, a man with a defined sense of cool that seemed both retro and avant garde when he emerged from the underground New York filmmaking scene in the ’80s, who now feels out of place in a way that keeps him unique, yet distances him from pretty much any other American filmmaker.
As usual, Jarmusch brings together a pretty killer collection of actors to play his wayward souls, and they deliver some of the finest work of their careers. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) sulks his way through the most screen time as a vampire living in a rotting house in Detroit, making retro rock under black-and-white photos of his many influences and also toying around with Tesla technology when he feels like it. His only contact with the human world is a local music geek Ian (Anton Yelchin), who gets Adam rare guitars and other oddities and also leaks his music out into the world one overpriced vinyl platter at a time.
Adam’s connection to the vampire world is Eve (Tilda Swinton), a lover he’s had for an indeterminate amount of time. She lives in Tangiers, where she sucks up classic literature constantly and pals around with her vampire buddy Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who amongst other things secretly wrote all the works of Shakespeare. When Adam goes through one of his periodic waves of suicidal depression, Eve travels to Detroit to spend time with him. Her presence eventually attracts her vicious sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska). Unfortunately for the subdued vampires Adam and Eve, Ava has a bit of a bloodlust and brings some action into the picture, which bursts the lead vampires’ pretty little bubble.
Like all Jim Jarmusch films, the pleasures come primarily from watching the characters hang out and exist. Most of their screen time is dedicated to studying their peculiar day-to-day activities, interests, and the ways they procure blood from hospitals rather than feasting on people. It’s a deadpan comedy with tragic undertones about lost souls pining for a peace they’re unlikely to ever find.
When Ava arrives, ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ turns into a traditional vampire movie almost against the director’s will, though it has some genuinely creepy moments and even a little action. Much like ‘Dead Man’, a genre infusion has helped wake up Jarmusch after a couple of placid projects. This may be his best film since the 1990s.
Some might find it dull, and it’s a shame that Jarmusch wasn’t able to shoot his gothic vampire movie in black-and-white, but ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ brings out the best in the filmmaker. He’s created a loose deadpan character comedy with dramatic undertones, cultural deconstruction, genuine emotion, passion, and a taste of horror. The director might feel out of place and locked into a forgotten past like his vampires, but if ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ proves nothing else, there’s still very much a place for his voice in the industry. In fact, his work feels so unlike anything else coming out of American film right now that we just might need Jim Jarmusch now more than ever.