Writer-Director Jim Jarmusch’s latest, Only Lovers Left Alive, is a nice slice of life film that explores the big questions of love, death, and misery. Oh, and it’s about vampires.
Yes, Only Lovers Left Alive is a unique take on the vampire genre in that it treats its protagonists not as monsters or super-powered rulers, but as real people with real problems who just happen to be immortal. Of course, some of their problems result from the fact that they are immortal, but it’s interesting nonetheless. The narrative focuses on Adam (Tom Hiddleston), an underground musician who has become disillusioned with the world in the wake of all that humans—or as he refers to them, zombies—have done to ruin the planet. Half a world away in Tangier is his wife, Eve (Tilda Swinton)—yes, their naming scheme was a little too on the nose and precious for me. While Adam closets himself in his home like a recluse, Eve is alive, wanting to experience all the world has to offer. One night, she reaches out to Adam and realizing he’s in a dark place, she heads to Detroit—night flights only, please—to reunite with him. Everything goes great for their reunion, until Eve’s younger sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), decides to turn up on Adam’s doorstep and turn their lives upside down.
What’s great about Only Lovers Left Alive is that it has an amazing and consistent atmosphere throughout. The audience is transported into the nighttime world of the vampires and sees it through their eyes. I also loved the imaginative ways that Jarmusch depicted how the vampires lived at this stage of human history. In short, they’re just as afraid of the cops as humans are. They really just want to be left alone to live their lives, but it’s hinted that there are others out there who aren’t so content to lay low. It was also fascinating to see how vampires as artists operated over the centuries. Adam and Eve’s friend, Marlowe (John Hurt), was a fantastic writer who used other people to be the face behind his writing as he stayed anonymous. Adam adopted a similar strategy in the past, but in the present day, he makes music mainly for himself, but the audience can see that he wants to put it out there, he’s just become so disillusioned he doesn’t know if he should. He has an errand boy, Ian (Anton Yelchin), who procures things for him and starts rumors to keep curious fans away from his house. Also, these very cultured vampires go about feeding their blood thirst in interesting ways, not because they don’t enjoy feeding on humans, but because of all the diseases that are present in human blood these days—they have to be very careful. The only issue I had with Only Lovers Left Alive was that it is a very slow-moving film. The pacing is very methodical and doesn’t really pick up until Ava arrives at the house.
Hiddleston and Swinton make a great pair on screen. They have an effortless chemistry that makes you believe that they could indeed be not only lovers for centuries, but vampires as well. Wasikowska does a great and infuriating job as Ava. Every minute she was on the screen, I wanted Adam to throttle her out of his house, which means she’s capturing the character perfectly. Yelchin does well with his time on screen, but I wish they would have explored his relationship with Adam a little more. There’s a hint that Ian isn’t completely on the level with Adam and it would have been nice to see that develop. Hurt is his usual excellent self as the aged vampire who keeps Eve in blood while she’s in Tangier. Also, Jeffrey Wright makes a nice appearance in a small role as a hospital technician who has an association with Adam.
Overall, Only Lovers Left Alive is a great meditation on life, love, and death with vampires as the conduit to tell the story. The way Jarmusch treats the vampires like real, three-dimensional people makes it all the more interesting. These characters have real history, which is displayed in what Jarmusch doesn’t tell us. The great cast just adds to the audience’s immersion into this world. The only caveat: if you choose to seek it out, make sure you’ve had a nap first.