FILM It’s difficult to think of an American filmmaker who has so consistently conveyed a sense of cool more than Jim Jarmusch. Since his cinematic emergence — minimalistic, black-and-white early efforts Stranger than Paradise (1984) and Down By Law (1986) helped launch the era’s culture-changing indie film movement — he’s never been pretentious or tempted by a big paycheck to direct something that doesn’t adhere to his unique artistic vision. This vision tends to include characters who are highly intelligent loners; scenes of driving, especially at night; unexpected yet perfect soundtrack choices (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins!); and casting international actors (Roberto Benigni) in their first notable stateside roles, as well as musicians (Tom Waits, the RZA).
Jarmusch has subverted genre films before — you don’t have to dig deep to find fierce defenders of 1995 Western Dead Man or 1999 gangster tale Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai — but his latest, Only Lovers Left Alive, is poised to be his biggest commercial hit to date. That’s not merely because it’s a vampire film, though this concession to trendiness will certainly work in its favor, as will the casting of high-profile Avengers (2012) star Tom Hiddleston. But this is still a Jarmusch vampire movie, and though it may be more accessible than some of the director’s more existential entries, it’s still wonderfully weird, witty, and — natch — drenched in cool.
The opening credits deploy a gothic, blood red font across a night sky — a winking nod to the aesthetics of Hammer classics like Horror of Dracula (1958). Then, the camera begins to rotate, filming a record as it plays, and symbolizing the eternal life of the two figures who’ve entered the frame: gloomy Adam (Hiddleston, rocking a bedhead version of Loki’s dark ‘do), who lurks not in a crumbling Transylvanian castle, but a crumbling Detroit mansion, and exuberant Eve (Tilda Swinton, so pale she seems to glow), who dwells amid piles of books in Tangier.
These two — are they the first couple in history, or just named for them? — live apart, partially due to the hassle of traveling when one can’t be in the sun (red-eye flights are a must). Yet they remain entangled in spirit, a phenomenon referenced amid much talk of what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” Adam spends his nights stroking his rare-instrument collection and composing dirges he’s reluctantly been sharing, despite his distrust of the “rock ‘n’ roll kids” who like to ring his doorbell. In centuries past, he hung out with Byron and Shelley, but believes today’s humans are “zombies” who live in fear of their own imaginations. (Never before has anyone pronounced “YouTube” with such sneering disdain.) Basically, he’s over it — going so far as to enlist Ian (Anton Yelchin), the one Detroit scenester he trusts, to track down a very special type of bullet. Made of wood. You know where this is going.
Over the phone from Morocco (she uses an iPhone; he uses electronics wizardry to rig calls through his old-school TV), Eve senses something’s not right, so she mobilizes for a long-overdue visit. Their reunion is glorious, complete with cruises around Detroit’s decaying landscape, with an in-jokey pause outside the childhood home of Jack White, who appeared in Jarmusch’s 2003 Coffee and Cigarettes and no doubt inspired Adam’s character.
Since, lest we forget, these romantic, sunglass-clad hipsters are also ancient vampires, the acquisition of blood untainted by modern illnesses is shown to be a continuous concern. Murder is not ideal, especially when one is highly invested in keeping an extremely low profile, so Adam has a deal worked out with a nervous local doctor, hilariously played by Jeffrey Wright; Eve gets “the good stuff” from her Tangier hook-up, fellow undead-ite Christopher Marlowe (Jarmusch regular John Hurt). The drug-addiction metaphor, a frequent vampire-tale device, is made overtly obvious; sips of blood inspire ecstatic swoons, and a dwindling supply is seen as justification for reckless behavior.
Unlike those old Hammer films, there’s no stake-wielding Van Helsing type pursuing these creatures of the night. Unlike the Twilight films, there’s no rival supernatural faction, either. If there’s a villain, it’s actual and emotional vampire Ava (Mia Wasikowska), Eve’s bad-penny sibling, who swoops in during a full moon for a most unwelcome visit. She’s been bumming around LA (“Ugh, zombie central,” groans Adam), but misses her sister — and as exaggeratedly obnoxious as this character is, living forever while everyone else ages and dies around you would get lonely. Plus, it’s Jarmusch’s way of making sure things don’t get too serious. Sure, some vampires are soulful, existentially tortured musical geniuses — but some of ’em are shallow, impulsive brats who just wanna have fun. It takes all kinds.
Only Lovers Left Alive‘s biggest antagonist is simply the outside world, with its epidemics of dull minds and blood-borne diseases. “The vampire is a resonant metaphor,” Jarmusch writes in the film’s press notes. “Adam and Eve are metaphors for the present state of human life.” But the takeaway isn’t dour in the slightest, for this is also a gorgeously filmed (by frequent François Ozon collaborator Yorick Le Saux), sharply realized dark comedy. The delight Jarmusch takes in tweaking the vampire mythos — sunlight most certainly kills, but garlic is “a superstition” — is just as enjoyable as his interest in exploring the agony, ecstasy, and uneventful lulls of immortality. *
ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE opens Fri/18 in San Francisco.