The vampire movie gets the Jim Jarmusch treatment in Only Lovers Left Alive, a too-hip-to-be-hip treatise on the undead that turns the genre on its head: in an era where vampires have been romanticized (Twilight) and vilified (Underworld, Blade) and parodied (Dark Shadows) and everything in-between, here’s a film that shows in painstaking detail just how boring immorality really is.
A laid-back, low-energy, slow-paced affair that never manages to raise a pulse, Only Lovers is a pretty tough sit (especially clocking in at a hair over two hours). Being a vampire isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, the director seems to be saying, and if the point was to recreate the utter tedium of immortality for the audience, well, mission accomplished.
Still, it’s terrific to look at and listen to: Jarmusch is in fine form, as always, and the film is immaculately shot by Yorick Le Saux (Arbitrage) with a lot of great location work in Tangiers and an abandoned, desiccated Detroit. It’s certainly evocative, if nothing else, with a lot of long, lingering shots of characters and locations that allow the audience to really take in the vibe.
The soundtrack – with some moody original music by Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL – also plays a big role in the atmosphere, and a pair of standout songs feature in some of the film’s most memorable scenes: Charlie Feathers’ classic Can’t Hardly Stand It, which plays out in full on vinyl, and Hot Blood’s disco cheese Soul Dracula, which hilariously unfolds on TV for our befuddled leads.
Those would be Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), whose character names rank high on the list of the film’s annoyingly obvious references. Also up there: Christopher Marlowe, an immortal playwright played by John Hurt (was he turned at 80, we wonder?), who repeatedly decries that hack Shakespeare, who he let publish all his original work.
Story? None. Nothing, at least, to sink our teeth into. The reclusive Adam lives in a decrepit Detroit family home, kitted out with retro hipster stylings like an old CRT television and a record player, everything connected via a mess of wiring to a Tesla-inspired generator. He makes money through depressing emo rock recordings, and gets supplies from “zombie” friend Ian (Anton Yelchin); “zombies” being the term he’s given human normals.
Eve lives in Tangiers, and gets her blood supply from Marlowe on the black market; she decides to pay Adam a visit after discovering just how depressed he is. Adam gets his stock of plasma from a local hospital, and in two of the film’s more memorable off-kilter scenes that feature that trademark Jarmusch sense of humor, he shares some awkward silences with an attendant played by Jeffrey Wright.
But nothing happens in Only Lovers Left Alive, other than a rundown of a few days or weeks events, and there’s not even the pretense that something interesting might be going on (as there was in Jarmusch’s last film – The Limits of Control – which was equally difficult to sit through but at least had an air of mystery about it). No, utter boredom is the point here.
While all of Jarmusch’s strengths as a director are present in this film (and his previous outing), as a writer he has entered new territory: gone are the storylines of films like Dead Man and Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai (genre films that share a superficial quality with Only Lovers Left Alive), and in their place is a provocative dare: you want to enjoy the experience of watching this film? No no no – this is art.
Only Lovers Left Alive is a moody and original take on the vampire genre that makes its point and wallows in it for over two hours; still, it’s exactly the movie that the director wanted to make. For the faithful, there are a lot of riches to discover along the way as the film leisurely unfolds; for the uninitiated, this isn’t the Jarmusch film to start with.