A depressed musician reunites with his lover, but their romance which has already endured several centuries is disrupted by the arrival of her uncontrollable younger sister.
A new Jim Jarmusch film is cause for excitement for fans who like his extremely laid back, no rush style of film making. Before I go any further with this review let me state that I’m not one of those fans. I did enjoy Ghost Dog (1999), Mystery Train (1989) & Down By Law (1986) to varying degrees but I’m of the opinion that his films are maybe just a tad too relaxed for me. I understand he’s a storyteller and he’s telling some very particular stories but aside from the three films I just mentioned, I can’t say that any other of his films have done anything more than make me extremely drowsy. So when I found out that his latest film, Only Lovers Left Alive was a vampire tale, I was dubious to say the least. I find that most Jarmusch films are both long & lugubrious and if I wanted to watch a long, lugubrious vampire flick I’d seek out some twinkly vampire crap like Twilight. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t interested in seeing what he’d bring to the table with this film, so….
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a long haired recluse living in a dilapidated house in Detroit when the film opens. He surrounds himself with music and instruments to create music, and his only occasional companionship comes from Ian (Anton Yeltchin), who acts as a sort of roadie for Adam. Eve (Tilda Swinton) is his wife, who is encamped in Tangiers with close family friend Marlowe (John Hurt). His friendship is of utmost importance to the couple because of his supply of what they call “The Good Stuff“. ThatGood Stuff is purified human blood and it’s pretty much all they can drink since human blood has become contaminated over the centuries and it’s pretty much poison to their systems which have become extremely refined over the centuries. Adam has managed to sate his sophisticated palate & survive in Detroit by purchasing some of that “Good Stuff” from a medical researcher, Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright). This immediately denotes the “Good Stuff” as a illegal drug of sorts and makes Adam & Eve, for lack of a better term, drug addicts. Although similar plot machinations have been seen before (Most notably in Abel Ferrara’s “The Addiction“), it’s still a strong premise to build a film on.
Once Eve returns home to Adam (“Good Stuff” in tow), Only Lovers Left Alive is content to become a extremely slow & languid character study featuring a couple who’ve been married for centuries and are still in love to this day. They spend their days sleeping and their nights talking, listening to music, reminiscing about old friends, driving around the detritus of what’s left of Detroit & drinking their “Good Stuff“. This is all we get for over an hour and unbelievably enough (At least to me) it’s all kinds of fascinating! I found myself totally engrossed & enchanted with their high brow musings and slightly acidic asides. They’ve been friends with everybody and are so far in front of the cultural curve that there literally isn’t anyone left on earth who could possibly tolerate their banter without feeling utterly incapable of being anything other than food for them. And that’s out as well since most, if not all, human blood has been contaminated.
It’s nearly 70 minutes into the movie before we’re introduced to Eve’s younger sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), who’s decided to pay the couple a visit. Adam dislikes Ava intensely and it’s easy to see why. While Eve is mannered, worldly & intelligent, Ava is rude, impetuous & purposely reckless (although her youth is mostly responsible for that). Her youthful unwillingness to listen to her sister & follow the program is what brings the film’s first true situation when she feeds on Ian (“You drank Ian. You…drank Ian“) after a night at a local nightclub. She’s summarily tossed back out onto the streets of Detroit and Adam shows Eve where he takes bodies when he doesn’t want anyone to find them afterwards. Sadly, Ava is out of the film after this point and while I would’ve loved to see where the story might’ve taken her, I fully understand that this is Adam & Eve’s story and that’s where Jarmusch’ script maintains much of its focus. Immediately afterwards, the couple decide to go back to Algiers to reconnect with Marlowe and get some more of the “Good Stuff” but when they arrive they can’t find him and their health is slowly ebbing away. Will they find him in time to feed or will they have to do something that they haven’t done in centuries and actually feed on the local populace and take a chance that their contaminated blood might kill them?
While all of that might sound exciting, trust me when I say that Jarmusch isn’t looking to excite his audience (Has he ever?). Only Lovers Left Alive is content to mosey along in a near trance like state with the occasional jolt of reality tossed into the mix to liven things up for a second or two before returning back to its near somnastic pace. But I was so completely enthralled by the two lead performances in the film that they could’ve spent the whole two hours reading entries from Webster’s dictionary and I’d be hanging on their every word. Hiddleston plays Adam as a less affected Howard Hughes-like character but despite his reticence to mingle with pretty much anyone save for Ian and Eve, he imbues Adam with an intensity and dour machismo that electrifies every frame of the film, he’s sexy and he knows it. But there’s a feeling of resignation to the character, a sense that he knows it’s all coming to an eventual end and yet he doesn’t seem to care (“I just feel like all of the sand is at the bottom of the hourglass”). He just wants to play his music and be with his wife. The rest will sort itself out.
Tilda Swinton is one of the most talented actresses alive. Her androgynous looks (If someone EVER makes a David Bowie biopic and doesn’t cast her as the thin white duke they’re a fool) and haughty tonality makes her look and sound like the next iteration of the human female but there’s a sincere tenderness that she gives to Eve, a humanity if you will. She’s sophisticated, educated & hip as all get out but she never feels like a character you couldn’t approach if you ever ran into her. There’s a warmth that Eve has nurtured over the centuries that Adam has summarily lost. Together they make one of the most captivatingly fascinating screen couples of all time.
The dilapidated streets of Detroit also play a big part in the film. Are they there to represent what’s become of Adam’s existence or are they featured to represent the perceived contamination that’s rampant in the human populace and referred to so often by the vampires? Either way, cinematographer Yorick Le Saux turns the streets of Detroit into a urban wasteland that even the zombies (Adam & Eve’s nickname for humanity) have abandoned. Most of the film is set in very dimly lit environments but while the overall look of the film is dark and forboding, it doesn’t feel as completely dour as Jarmusch might’ve wanted it to feel.
Only Lovers Left Alive isn’t the least bit scary (Save for a final image that might linger in your dreams for a bit) but its not supposed to be. Sure it’s a film about hungry vampires but don’t they have lives too? They were human once and it’s the few shreds of humanity they have left inside of them that Jarmusch focuses on in his script. The inherent boredom of having been alive for centuries plays into the script as well, how different might Adam’s life been if he didn’t have Eve to spend it with? The only thing he has any passion for besides her is his music, what would’ve happened to him if he didn’t have either? Would his boredom translate into a reason to end his life or is love really all anyone ever needs? These are some of the more prescient questions that Jarmusch’s lean script asks.
Add one of the best soundtracks ever to the mix and Only Lovers Left Alive instantly becomes one of my favorite movies of the year so far. It’s a brilliantly opaque character study that just happens to have a couple of ageless vampires as its focus. There is no action to be found here, there are no real scares to be found here either but if you’re willing to accept the idea of a slow, dialog heavy character piece featuring empiric vampires who languish on a sofa while discussing people they knew centuries ago (This certainly sounds appealing…doesn’t it?), then you’ll be rewarded with one of the best films of the year by far. It’s a true original, just like Jarmusch is.
Only Lovers Left Alive – 5 out of 5 shrouds.