It seems like a perfect match. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as married vampire lovers who have been lovers for centuries, still together in the present day. John Hurt as a respected older vampire in their community, and Mia Wasikowska as Swinton’s sister (of a sort). All of this with Jim Jarmusch, indie auteur extraordinaire and the ultimate purveyor of modern disinterested cinematic cool, at the helm. Going into Only Lovers Left Alive, there was certainly a chance for the film to disappear into its own self-satisfied chic, the sort of project that presents itself as the easiest slam dunk and does not take the time to actually do what is necessary to make it a great film. Jarmusch has been a touch off his game for the last decade or so (Broken Flowers was his last film that felt like it had some oomph to it, and that one had its share of problems), but luckily, with this he has rediscovered quite a bit of that mojo from the 80’s and 90’s.
Hiddleston and Swinton are Adam and Eve, two vampires who have been in love for centuries, though they begin the film apart. Adam has settled into run down, modern day Detroit as reclusive and aloof artist. He relies on a resourceful acquaintance and groupie of sorts named Ian (Anton Yelchin, in a different sort of vampire movie than Fright Night) to bring him rare instruments and various other oddities, and has a hookup at the local hospital (Jeffrey Wright, his cadence as weird as ever) to keep him in clean blood. Eve is in Tangiers, ensconced in literary culture alongside her friend and confidant Christopher Marlowe (yes, that Chrisopher Marlowe, played here by Hurt). Eve is clearly having a better time with her current situation than Adam, who seems to be taking this whole depressed artist trope a little too literally, and decided to help cheer him up with a visit to Michigan. When Eve’s sister Ava (Wasikowska) shows up at Adam’s door mostly unannounced, some combustible elements begin to ignite.
Jarmusch wastes little time establishing the visual and metaphorical language of Only Lovers Left Alive, cutting back and forth between Adam and Eve in their disparate countries to establish their deep connection even when apart (a concept that pays off beautifully in the film’s final scene). Music plays a big role here, which should not be a surprise considering Jarmusch’s use of music in previous projects, but goes a step further by syncing up the revolution of vinyl records consistently with a lazily rotating bird’s eye camera and characters who sway along with it. The score and soundtrack are uniformly stellar, a mix of Moroccan ethnic music and post-rock experimental guitar fuzz. Adam is a multi-instrumentalist and Jack White fan, a Trent Reznor-esque tortured artist writing funeral dirges in his empty, decaying house, and the soundtrack is along for the ride, not afraid to contrast it with the brighter street musicians of Tangiers. All considered together, the aesthetics of Only Lovers Left Alive are a formidable treat.
What is striking about the film is what Jarmusch drapes over these visual and auditory flourishes with the content of the characters and the content of this world, and how unconcerned it seems to be with the prior history of vampires in literary and pop culture. The vampires here are set up as a more mundane lot, marginalized by the expansion of technology and communication that forces them into the shadows, pining for the high culture of their past. These are not the sort of vampires of Bram Stoker or Anne Rice, or even Joss Whedon or Stephanie Meyer. In practice, Adam and Eve are not all unlike the characters from Jarmusch’s earlier works, full of detached cool and high culture, wearing sunglasses at night. It is not much of a stretch to jump from Swinton to Eszter Blaint in Stranger Than Paradise, from Hiddleston to Tom Waits in Down By Law. Only now, the characters are immortal, and actually witnessed the high art they revere so much.
Under a shakier hand, the approach could have devolved into pretension, but Jarmusch plays everything straight, winking while not winking, and the result feels astonishingly genuine. Their years and years of life on the forefront of culture makes them want to create, but doing so draws undue attention in the modern world. They cannot feed as normal because the blood of humans has become tainted by drugs and chemicals, and the bodies must be disposed of with care. Pure blood becomes heroin, the act of ingesting it turned into the ritual of shooting up. Critically, Adam and Eve are no simple hipsters, not the sort to fully revel in the past without acknowledging the artistic efforts of the present day. There is more to them than that.
Considering this, the decision to hire Wasikowska, the sort of actress who after her work in films like Jane Eyre and Stoker should fit right in here, play wildly off type as the sort of party-girl hyper-sexed vampire that is more akin to how the culture may view them these days, works extraordinarily well. This section of the film takes on the feel of a sitcom, which makes for an excellent alteration to the pace and tone. It is a fun detour until the problems of the real world set in again, but provides a necessary bit of levity to stave off the navel gazing. The film often sprinkles in these little bits of humor, whether through a perfectly deadpanned one liner or a particularly clever reference to past art. Jarmusch definitely took his time constructing this world (a shining example is the way Adam refers to some stalkers as “rocker kids,” the exact sort of turn of phrase no one would ever use), and these little references and nods are taken seriously enough by the actors that they do not feel overclever or tacked on.
At its core, Only Lovers Left Alive is a love story, but it’s more about the ebbs and flows of life, the way relationships and settings change and evolve, writ large through the lens of two immortal beings who know the real writer of Hamlet and hung out with Lord Byron. Bolstered by confident, strong performances from its two leads (as well as the rest of the principal cast), a visual style that perfectly reinforces the film’s themes and tone, and a killer soundtrack, the film feels like a well curated tour of the darker corners of the art world. It helps to be a fan of Jarmusch’s style of film and characters, as these are Jarmusch archetypes to the hilt, but there is more than enough intrigue for those who do not count themselves devotees to the director, who once again finds himself at the top of his game.