Despite the fact that many of the characters in Jim Jarmusch films tend to be aimless wanderers, Jarmusch himself has always been an exceptionally precise filmmaker. That precision reached its peak with Jarmusch's aptly-titled 2009 feature The Limits of Control, which observed a spy engaging in the same series of daily routines over and over again and having enigmatic conversations with eccentric informants. It was a masterful technical exercise, and it was also rather difficult to sit through. As such, it's a happy relief to discover that the director has returned to form (as opposed to simply returning to formality) with the deadpan vampire flick Only Lovers Left Alive. Like Jarmusch's best films, it's funny, wise, clever, mournful, languorous, soulful and cool.
Our story centers on two vampires named Adam (Tom Hiddleston, Thor) and Eve (Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin). He's been around for centuries; she's been around even longer. Though the vampires in this film are restricted by the usual vampire rules (no sunlight, avoid wooden stakes, etc.), they don't succumb to usual vampire behavior. These are civilized, 21st century vampires who find ways to procure the blood they need from hospitals and reliable underground dealers. Even so, Eve has done a better job of adapting to the modern world than Adam. She's a joyful soul, reveling in the knowledge that her immortality gives her all the time she needs to read all the books her heart desires and enjoying the level of connectivity modern technology is capable of providing. Alas, Adam is hopelessly in love with the past, yearning for the days of Lord Byron and falling into a deep despair as he examines the horrors of the present.
Adam and Eve are a couple, but their lifestyle preferences have guided them to different parts of the world: she lives in Tangier, he lives in Detroit. When Adam confesses his loneliness, Eve begs him to come stay with her, but he declines. Realizing the severity of Adam's despair, Eve travels to America to spend some time with her one true love.
Like many of Jarmusch's films, Only Lovers Left Alive is fundamentally a hangout movie. There is a traditional plot involving good-natured young human (Anton Yelchin, Star Trek), Eve's gleefully unhinged sister (Mia Wasikowska, who shakes up the movie considerably during her limited screen time) and unexpected blood supply issues, but moments of real forward momentum are relatively infrequent. Jarmusch spends a large chunk of his time simply observing his two fascinating protagonists. To a much greater degree than most vampire films, Jarmusch really considers how the condition might affect a person and alter the way they view life. In Adam and Eve, he finds equally persuasive cases for the agony and ecstasy of immortality. The spare plot leaves room for such lovely moments as the early scene in which Hiddleston and Yelchin geek out over a variety of antique guitars (one of the few pleasures of the modern world Adam appreciates), and the scene in which Swinton begs one of her undead acquaintances (a sly John Hurt, Snowpiercer) to give up some of the long-buried literary secrets of the 17th century. It's a great showcase for Hiddleston and Swinton; consummate actors who are given all the space they need to create complex, fully-realized characters.
The director revels in the atmosphere of his locations, and proves equally adept at capturing the tattered charms and nightlife of both Tangier and Detroit. There's a smoky romanticism to the film's palette, and when the camera moves, it moves with a certain classical elegance (slowly spinning around the room as it descends from above to observe its characters). The sets quietly reveal so much about the characters – just contrast Adam's home (littered with outdated, heavily re-wired technology and vinyl LPs) with Eve's (which looks like a small, romantic library). Grungy, evocative, guitar-heavy music dominates the soundtrack; a well-curated blend of original material (penned by Jozef van Wissem, Jarmusch himself and a handful of other collaborators) and pre-existing tracks. Factor in the thoughtful, dryly funny dialogue and the appropriately androgynous appearance of the two leads and you have a film which is always a pleasure to look at and listen to.
However, as is the case with all of the director's very best work, the film is ultimately more than a handful of low-key surface pleasures. The movie regards our modern world with dismay and spends a fair amount of time pondering what humanity has done to the planet, but it's cautious to avoid adopting Adam's romanticism of the past. In one lovely scene, Eve offers Adam a reminder that he wasn't even around during some of the world's darkest chapters. “It's been like this before,” she says with a kind smile. The film's final reel is a potent finish, delivering a subtle, powerful suggestion that life's most challenging moments are the ones capable of giving us the will to keep living (regardless of whether we have immortality at our disposal). Vampires may have worn out their welcome in pop culture, but films like this one and Let the Right One In/Let Me In remind us of why we found them so fascinating to begin with. If you've ever enjoyed any of Jarmusch's films (or if you're looking for an appealing, relatively accessible gateway into his work), check this one out.
Only Lovers Left Alive
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 123 minutes
Release Year: 2014