Jim Jarmusch has crafted a weirdly fun and thought-provoking vampire film starring a pair of expertly cast actual vampires (probably).
I just feel like all the sand is at the bottom of the hourglass or something.
Jim Jarmusch’s artsy vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive is equal parts oddball fun and cultural exploration, populated with characters that you’d die to hang out with, if only they were willing to hang out with you in turn. But Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) probably wouldn’t give you a second look, the isolationists that they are. Living half a world apart in Detroit and Tangier respectively, the centuries-old lovers have watched the world decay for hundreds of years under the tone deaf direction of the zombies (an epithetic label for humans) with varying degrees of pessimism.
Hiding out in the Motor City, Adam is an analog vamp-musician trapped in an increasingly digital world – a vampiric Jack White, if you will. He lives alone in his house/studio making music with pre-1970s instruments and recording equipment while growing steadily more depressed, even asking his only human contact, Ian (Anton Yelchin), to procure him a wooden bullet. Adam is a devout culturist, his studio walls lined with pictures of the men who shaped the world in years passed before moving on and leaving him behind. He identifies with the scientists and artists who were scorned in their own lifetimes only to be lionized once they were gone. These men shaped Adam’s beloved culture while he can only occasionally contribute from behind the scenes. He won’t let Ian publicize his music, no matter how much Ian praises it to his fellow underground music aficionados. How could he? The public stage is no place for a man whose survival depends on going unnoticed, but that’s doesn’t mean it’s not a real drag.
Adam’s malaise is interrupted by a visit from Eve, his centuries-older wife visiting from Morocco. She, too, is a culture vulture, but with a love of books rather than music. She’s also more social than Adam, spending nights in Tangier chatting with the long (un)dead Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), the famous British author who faked his death and disappeared from public eye hundreds of years before. With hundreds more years under her belt, Eve has seen the ebbs and flows of society before, and she encourages Adam to be optimistic. Whereas he sees Detroit’s urban decay as the epitome of society’s current trajectory, Eve knows that its proximity to fresh water means the city will blossom again in the coming years of drought. Swinton and Hiddleston’s performances carry the film, and both actors are perfect for their roles, being naturally pale, extraordinarily thin, and quintessentially weird. It’s not too hard to imagine either of them as actually vampires who’ve infiltrated the film world. Their undeniable British-ness doesn’t hurt their résumés either. They’re captivating as they glide moodily around the lamp-lit interiors of Adam’s pigsty of a home, enjoying their time together and indulging in each other before they’ll spend years apart again.
It’s a film where the scattered plot points unfurl slowly, almost secondary to the film’s moody, atmospheric conversations, but it’s never boring. Adam and Eve chow on blood popsicles, cruise around nighttime Detroit in classic cars, and always have something interesting to say – a staple of every Jarmusch film. Both characters are sharply funny, each possessing a quick dry wit. When Adam momentarily loses himself recalling the time he saw Chet Atkins play a guitar similar to one he’s holding, to a confused Ian, he quickly ad-libs that, of course, he saw it, “on Youtube.” Additionally, the film’s connection of vampires with musicians is hardly coincidental. Everything about our protagonists is symbolic of burned out musicians. Ian is a groupie, an attentive hanger-on ready to praise his hero’s work and share in its benefits, selling Adam’s music behind his back and against his wishes. And like musicians struggling with dangerous addictions, Adam and Eve have a bad habit of their own. It may be a blood cocktail instead of intravenous drugs, but the same dangers are present. Adam gets his O-negative from a hospital blood bank worker, the humorously named Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright), to ensure that his supply is clean. In the modern age of blood borne diseases, a vampire’s addiction is every bit as dangerous as narcotics, and after a serving, Adam and Eve lounge around with wide eyes and catatonic stares. See, our aged protagonists are the original world-weary hipster elitists, longing for an era gone by while spinning records in dark rooms during a drug fueled haze and scorning the modern age. And when the modern age shows up unexpectedly on their couch in the form of Eve’s sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), an LA party girl (despite being several hundred years old), Adam’s world is thrown awry by someone who doesn’t share he and Eve’s artistic tastes and has a blood hunger far outstripping their own.
But blood and eternal life are old hat in current movie trend where vampires are the go-to monsters of the times. What separates Only Lovers Left Alive from Twilight and Underworld is Adam and Eve’s interest in the intellectual landscape. Uninterested in never-ending monster wars, Jarmusch’s leading couple is more likely to flip you off, have a nightcap, and bicker about the merits of Motown vs. Stax records than spend their nights hunting down humanity. Jarmusch is interested in his characters’ place in the culture rather than just their modern influence on the movie scene. As eternal beings, Adam and Eve are in a unique place to look at the historical record. They can take the long view of history, playing life out over centuries rather than decades, but does that make them superior vehicles for the culture? Or are they simply repositories for it with their refusal to leave home and take part in the larger conversation? Is a life, no matter how long, ultimately useless if you refuse to take part in the world around you? Hiding in the shadows, our vampires can only interact with the arts by proxy, as Adam is claimed to have once given Schubert the adagio for one of his string quartets, and Marlowe seemingly composed the works of Shakespeare behind the scenes. Is it enough for Marlowe to imply that Adam’s moody depression was the inspiration for Hamlet if the rest of the world will never know? It’s all beautifully poetic.
The film admittedly loses some steam in its final half hour when Adam and Eve head abroad, but the questions it’s raised in the meantime remain thought-provoking long after the credits have rolled. There’s a definite difference between a film that you appreciate for its merits, and one that you just flat enjoy. While the film stands up fine on its own virtues, I probably haven’t enjoyed a film this much since The Avengers, which notably also stars Tom Hiddleston. I want to go to Detroit and find these characters. I want to share in their fascinating cultural conversations. It’s an outside chance that they’d take me in, but I’d be willing to make my case. The culture, just like vampires, could always use a little fresh blood.