"I don't have any heroes."
Jim Jarmusch has always been a darling of the indie scene, and unlike so many of his contemporaries (Steven Soderbergh, The Coen Brothers, and Gus VanSant to name but a few), he has never really had a big, breakout, mainstream film. However, unlike a number of his other contemporaries (Alex Cox, Jim Sheridan, and Hal Hartley), Jarmusch continues cranking out projects, to varying degrees of success, with no signs of slowing down. He's probably closest in terms of clout and respect to David Cronenberg, though even he has had major success as a studio director.
Jarmusch has never been one of my favorite filmmakers, but I've always appreciated his work, with a particular affinity for his output from Down by Law in 1986 through Ghost Dog in 1999. I liked aspects of Coffee & Cigarettes and Broken Flowers, but never even bothered to see The Limits of Control, so all of this is my way of saying that while I like Jarmusch, I certainly don't worship at his altar, and I'm definitely not a fan of his stance as an outspoken Anti-Stratfordian. Having said all that, I was intrigued by his latest film Only Lovers Left Alive, and anxious to see his unique take on an incredibly played out sub genre, the vampire movie.
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a musician living in a dilapidated mansion in the crumbling metro area of Detroit. His only contact with the outside world is through Ian (Anton Yelchin), a guy who can procure him anything he needs from rare guitars to a single wooden bullet. Adam also makes trips to a local hospital where he pays a doctor (Jeffrey Wright) to give him stores of non-contaminated blood to feed his vampiric habits. On the other side of the world in Tangiers, Eve (Tilda Swinton) is eking out a similarly solitary life, acquiring the blood she needs from Kit (John Hurt), better known as Christopher Marlowe (yes, that one).
Adam and Eve are married, we discover, but Adam refuses to leave Detroit because of his existential malaise, so Eve is forced to fly to him so they can be together again. Their love is the only thing keeping them going at this point, as Adam has clearly become so disillusioned by humanity, that he can barely keep it together anymore, hence his request for a single wooden bullet. They begin to find some semblance of happiness again, when Ava (Mia Wasikowska), Eve's sister, shows up at their doorstep. Things did not end well between Adam and Ava the last time they were together, and Ava's destructive ways threaten to destroy the peace that Adam and Eve have only just begun to enjoy.
Despite the obvious parallels between Adam and Anne Rice's Lestat, this is a wholly original take on the vampire myth, and really takes a long, hard look at what eternity must actually feel like for the undead. This is a slow, methodically paced film that is likely to bore many audience members to tears, but it's leisurely pace should not be confused with pacing issues. Any teenage girls wandering in to see another vampire love story, this time with the hot guy that played Loki, will find themselves confronted with what eternal love actually looks like. It's not all furtive glances and pearl clutching, it's a lot of sitting around, playing chess, driving around the once great city of Detroit, and avoiding contact with most of humanity. It's a wonderful antidote for all those fed up with the sparkly, chaste vampires that ruled the multiplexes for the better part of the last decade.
The film is also, very clearly, Jarmusch's thesis statement on the hopelessness of humanity. The way Adam and Eve casually refer to humans as "zombies," and Adam's rant about how humanity has treated all of the great scientific minds of history is very clearly the rant of a filmmaker disgusted with the average person's ignorance of truly noble pursuits. The biggest roadblock for many will likely be the insertion of Jarmusch's Anti-Stratfordian views into the proceedings, as well as a number of additional casual references to great art having really been created by a handful of undead interlopers. It's a clever enough concept, and certainly not jammed down the audience's throats, but it is there and will upset some in the audience.
The performances are as excellent as would be expected from such a diverse cast of seasoned veterans and proven younger talent. This is the role that Swinton was born to play. She always seems like an alien presence in everything she does, and it works remarkably in her favor here, giving her performance a verisimilitude that an actress in makeup just wouldn't have had. Hiddleston is also fantastic, doing so much with very little. He keeps everything very quietly contained, except for carefully chosen moments to unleash, and he is brilliant. For someone who cut his teeth in the theatre, and became best known for his very theatrical performances as Loki, he is incredibly tuned in to film acting, and never goes over the top.
Yelchin and Wasikowska are both very good in their handful of scenes, and Hurt is also wonderful in his two scenes. Wright is great, as he always is, yet he was sorely underused. A film can never have enough Jeffrey Wright in it, and sadly this film proves that axiom to be true. Jarmusch does a lot of interesting things visually, in particular the opening shots of the film that oscillate like a record turntable, instantly setting the tone and letting the audience know precisely what they're in for. His use of music is also fantastic, both in his choice of "popular songs" by artists such as Wanda Jackson and Charlie Feathers, as well as a terrific score by Jozef Van Wissem and SQÜRL.
Only Lovers Left Alive fits the very definition of Jarmuschian, and will be like a warm blanket for his fans, eager to spend two hours in the company of creations that are uniquely his own. It will also appeal to those who may not be fans, but crave a quiet, luxuriously paced film that caters to grown-ups. Those with short attention spans need not waste their time or money, but those willing to give themselves over to the experience will find an oddly touching love story that shows what true love really looks like. Love is about time spent in the company of someone you love, not running around doing things that only people in the movies do like horseback riding or hot air balloon rides. This is a literate, well made film that will stroke the intellectual part of your brain, and I just don't get to say that often enough.
GO Rating: 3.5/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]