Movie review: Give Jarmusch another chance with ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’
It’s been a long while since I’ve really, really enjoyed a Jim Jarmusch film. With exceptions of brilliant moments in the droll “Broken Flowers” and the grim “Dead Man,” the oddly goofy “Down by Law” has been my favorite. But “Only Lovers Left Alive,” best described as a contemporary vampire film, has pushed “Down by Law” into second place.
If you’ve tried Jarmusch before, and liked him, you’ll realize upon seeing this one that it’s his most assured and accessible film. If you’ve tried him and walked out vowing never to see another by him, it’s time to give him another chance.
First and foremost, this is a love story about Adam, an old-school underground musician (he records on a reel to reel machine) who holes up in a crammed, rundown apartment in Detroit, and his wife, Eve, who spends a leisurely and rather enigmatic existence in faraway Tangiers.
Adam has given up performing live, and shies away from the world, especially from the obsessive music fans who keep searching for him. But he does have Ian, a right hand man of sorts, who gets supplies for him, and regularly finds and drops off rare guitars at the apartment (a blue sparkly Hagstrom and a red Gretsch are the ones I was drooling over). Eve wanders the streets and back alleys of Tangiers, regularly meeting up with her old friend Marlowe at a quiet café.
Since there’s not a whole lot of storytelling going on here, the biggest and best thing the film has going for it is the alluring mood that’s set at the start, and that Jarmusch maintains almost for its entirety. Yet keeping right up with that mood to make the film so memorable is the cast Jarmusch has assembled. Tilda Swinton adds her usual other-worldly presence to Eve, and Tom Hiddleston (the evil Loki in the Thor films), as Adam, gives us the best reclusive rocker since Todd Haynes filled a film with them in “Velvet Goldmine.”
For the record, Adam and Eve are vampires, and if vampires had souls, they would be soul mates. It’s never made clear how old they are, how long they’ve been a couple (though it’s mentioned they were married in 1868), or how long they’ve been living apart, but they are always at the center of the film, and circumstances soon bring them back together again, sharing glasses of fine, unspoiled blood that’s purchased, under shady circumstances, from a local hospital.
The characters who rotate closely around them easily fit right in with the film’s flow. Anton Yelchin is the helpful but hapless Ian, an updated nod to Count Dracula’s assistant Renfield; John Hurt is the suave and secretive Marlowe; and Jeffrey Wright is the crooked cash-for-blood doctor. I mentioned earlier that Jarmusch maintains the film’s mood for “almost” its entirety. That’s because he breaks it in what, as I was watching the film, was a jarring, annoying manner, with the introduction of Eve’s estranged little sister, Ava (played with a free-spirited brightness no one else exudes by Mia Wasikowski). The character even disrupts the minimal storyline, not just the mood. It wasn’t until the day after I saw the film that I realized what a darkly comic gem the character was, and how unconventionally vibrant she played it.
As a longtime fan of vampire stories, and someone who was terribly disillusioned by what was presented in the “Twilight” series, I was extremely pleased with the take given to the genre here. These are, with the exception of Ava, elegant and sophisticated creatures. Their existence is not a violent one. They only want to be left alone and allowed to keep on keeping on. Their biggest problem is not Ava, but the fact that the “good stuff” they subsist on, as opposed to the blood that’s been “contaminated” by the “zombies” – the rest of us – who make up our society – is in short supply. That’s where the film’s main drama lies. Jarmusch’s triumph is that he makes us care about these characters, all the while placing us in their world and, for a couple of hours, never letting us think about ours.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch With Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Anton Yelchin, Mia Wasikowski, John Hurt Rated R