Jim Jarmusch and vampires – must be a biography. Academy Award winner Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska and Academy Award nominee John Hurt star in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive.
Director – Jim Jarmusch
Screenplay – Jim Jarmusch
Producer – Jeremy Thomas & Reinhard Brundig
Rated R for language and brief nudity
After centuries of influencing musicians and scientists, vampire Adam (Tom Hiddleston) has become a reclusive musician in Detroit. Surviving on bribed blood-bank donations supplied by Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright), Adam’s days are spent recording his own music and lamenting on the state of the modern world, referring to humans as “zombies”.
Overseas, Adam’s wife Eve (Tilda Swinton), who gets her blood supply from Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) – yes, that Christopher Marlowe – has been living in Tangier, Morocco. After Adam contemplates suicide, she quickly flies back to the States to reunite with him.
We’ve had our fill of vampire films over the past few years. It wasn’t quite that it was vampire films as much as it was just vampire films that sucked, and given the richness in mythology and character that’s ascribed to the vampire – well, hell, I deserve better than some glittery, depressed Nancy-boy with fangs. However, Neil Jordan’s Byzantium from last year, starring Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan, was a rare quality exception amidst the crap that is Twilight, True Blood, Vampire Academy and The Vampire Diaries.
One of the major proponents of indie films, Jim Jarmusch is certainly not the most widely accessible filmmaker, but I myself have been a fan of his since Dead Man starring Johnny Depp. His style is minimalist, focusing more on mood and character than narrative. I can’t help but think of the episode of The Simpsons that he guest-voiced on. While attending the Sundance Film Festival, Lisa meets Jarmusch, who explains to her that his films are about “social misfits experiencing the dark side of the American dream” and that it’ll all be seen in his next film, Cheaper By the Dozen 3. When Lisa says that doesn’t sound like a film he’d do, he responds that it definitely is by showing her a poster with Steve Martin standing in front of 12 gravestones.
It’s no surprise that his next film (they usually show up every 3-4 years) centers on the lives of two vampires. One, they’re, as I just mentioned, all the rage now, and two, sporting sunglasses, silver-streak hair and a slender and pale appearance, I’d be more shocked to find out Jim Jarmusch isn’t a vampire.
Although about those bloodsucking denizens of the night, Only Lovers Left Alive is a quiet little film that focuses more on the love relationship between Hiddleston’s Adam and Swinton’s Eve than the fact that they’re vampires. It’s not quite a romance, nor is it quite a horror, although Jarmusch dabbles with both elements here. That they are vampires is simply an extra layer that adds to their characters. Plus, Jarmusch takes the notion of a vampire’s immortality – not always but sometimes glamorized – and flips it over on its head, posing the question: is it really that glamorous?
Adam and Eve aren’t your typical vampires. Eve consumes books by speed-reading more than she does blood. Adam’s written pieces for Schubert and witnessed Eddie Cochrane – who died in 1960 – play (when Yelchin’s Ian asks, “You saw Eddie Cochrane play?”, Adam quickly adds, “… On YouTube.”). They don’t kill. It’s the 21st century, and killing’s so four centuries ago. Sure, like any vampire, they need to consume blood to survive, but they get the good stuff. The stuff that’s like a high for them, instead of that garbage swine piss flowing through us trashy humans.
At the center of this story are two wonderful performances from Tilda Swinton (who, like Jarmusch, is pale enough to actually be a vampire) and Tom Hiddleston (most everyone with a pulse will know him as Loki from Thor and The Avengers), played just right when lesser talents might’ve tried more for scene-chewing. Jarmusch brings his trademark dry wit and mood to the table, but this film might not have been as effective as it is if not for the two leads presented here. Much of the humor presented here is the “been there, done that over the centuries” attitude of both Adam and Eve. They seen and experienced it all, and at times those experiences provide the film with much humor. All the historical figure shout-outs could’ve come off gimmicky in the hands of the wrong writer, but Jarmusch is smart enough of a writer to know when to sprinkle those little historical nods (Nikola Tesla, Eddie Cochrane, Albert Einstein, etc.) throughout the film.
“Mary Shelley – what was she like?”, asks Eve.
“She was delicious.”, Adam replies with a grin.
While Jarmusch does take his time for the first half of the film, Mia Wasikowska injects a much needed dose of sauciness, entering and leaving the film at just the right times, as Eve’s younger vixen sister Ava. Wasikowska’s clearly having fun sinking her teeth (pun intended) into this role, which is a nice counter-balance to the more restrained radiance from Hiddleston and Swinton. Jeffrey Wright and Anton Yelchin, albeit only in minor roles, add some humor to the story as well and John Hurt has a brief yet wonderfully entertaining turn as Christopher Marlowe – the playwright many believe actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays for him (there’s a nice, little deathbed dig at Shakespeare near the end).
Vampire fans expecting the same old song and dance will be disappointed and may find the film’s pace to be sluggish. Like everything Jim Jarmusch, expect slow and moody. It’s not his best work. It takes a little bit of time before we really get into the characters, but Only Lovers Left Alive is still a fine character driven story of two centuries-old lovers, strongly performed by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton and smartly written by Jarmusch in all its low-key, subtle glory.
I give Only Lovers Left Alive a B+ (★★★).