Jim Jarmusch makes cool movies. This is not a qualitative judgement, necessarily, but rather a statement of fact. More than anything else, Jarmusch’s films serve as vehicles for cool: cool people talk about cool things, in cool cities, while cool music plays in the background. Jarmusch is, himself, incredibly cool, and his films make the viewer feel cooler for watching them. All of this would be completely insufferable if the movies themselves weren’t, well, so cool. Jarmusch’s films are kind of like the cinematic equivalent of Sonic Youth albums: tonally similar, but consistently great.
It came as a bit of a surprise, then, when it was announced that Jarmusch’s next film would be a vampire romance film. Yet despite all the fangs and bloodletting, ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE finds the filmmaker at his Jarmuschiest– and at his best.
The plot concerns Adam and Eve, a couple of centuries-old vampires who are deeply in love, yet live half a world apart. Eve (played by the eternally cool Tilda Swinton) has a modest pad in Tangiers, where she spends her time speed-reading the world’s great literature and scoring pints of blood from her neighbor vampire, who happens to be sixteenth-century playwright Christopher Marlowe (the always-wonderful John Hurt, still sporting his scraggly DOCTOR WHO beard). Eve’s breezy lifestyle stands in contrast to Adam’s (Tom Hiddleston, now and forever the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Loki), who Marlowe describes as a “suicidally romantic scoundrel.” Adam has sequestered himself to the DIY recording studio in his decaying Detroit mansion, surrounded by gear, records, and technology cherrypicked from the various decades he’s witnessed. His only contacts are an unscrupulous doctor at the local blood bank (Jeffrey Wright) and a skeevy rock scenester named Ian (STAR TREK’s Anton Yelchin), who serves as his Renfield-like gofer, delivering vintage guitars and swearing not to tell anybody about him. Adam is at the end of his rope with the mortal “zombies” outside, and is considering ending it all with a custom made wooden bullet through the heart.
Sensing her lover’s distress (via FaceTime, which Adam manages with the aid of an ‘80s cordless phone, a ‘60s color TV, and an early 2000s laptop), Eve packs her bags and books a trip to the States. The trip, as she explains to her travel agent, needs to be made in two consecutive overnight flights; the Movie Vampire Rulebook is strictly adhered to, but thankfully never spelled out (one of the funniest running gags is a wolf howling over a shot of the moon to signify the vampires’ “morning”). Her presence does Adam good; they share O-negative popsicles, and Adam shows Eve the sights of modern Detroit, from an abandoned movie palace-turned-parking garage to the childhood home of Jack White (“I love Jack White!” Eve moons). Their reunion is disrupted, however, by the arrival of Eve’s sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska, playing her ancient bloodsucker as Millennial party girl), whose decidedly less methodical appetite threatens to topple their carefully curated lifestyle.
Much of the film is carried by Swinton’s wry joie de vivre (joie de morte?). She’s been around long enough to have seen humanity at its worst (she chides Adam for his cynicism, pointing out that he hadn’t been around for the Inquisition), but she loves both Adam and the world too much to give up on either. Adam, meanwhile, serves as a sort of onscreen curator, spinning records and rhapsodizing about scientists for Eve and, by extension, the audience (it’s easy to see him as Jarmusch’s stand-in in this regard, particularly when he speculates on the dubious nutritional value of music industry blood). Hiddleston imbues Adam with a dark charisma, but his petulance and undying contempt for Ava provide some of the biggest laughs in the film.
If my description of the plot seems thinner than the exposition, it’s because ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE is far more concerned with character and atmosphere than with straightforward storytelling. This is not a bad thing, as the characters and atmosphere are immensely seductive. Nobody in this film is entirely unlikable, and each is portrayed by an actor you could listen to talk for hours. The locations mirror the characters perfectly; the once hip, now decrepit streets of Detroit match Adam’s deteriorating mental state, while the back streets of Tangiers mirror Eve’s otherworldly flair (it’s also cannily chosen for its history as a haven for depraved decadence, with Marlowe’s presence a cheeky spin on the legend of William S. Burroughs). The soundtrack, as expected for a Jarmusch film, is exquisite, mixing a Cannes-winning score by Jozef van Wissem, instrumentals by Jarmusch’s own band SQÜRL, live performances by White Hills and Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan, and a choice selection of soul and rockabilly nuggets. Occasionally, elements of the plot seem underdeveloped – Wright’s character in particular seems unexplored, and we’re never given an adequate explanation as to why the central couple live on opposite sides of the world – but it’s all so smartly written, well acted, and aesthetically pleasing that it’s tough to really care. Which would you rather have: another tightly-wound supernatural thriller, or a chance to dance with Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston to a scratchy old Charlie Feathers single? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (2013) Directed by Jim Jarmusch [123 min.]
Coolidge Corner Theatre (290 Harvard St, Brookline, MA 02446)
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