Octoberween is now over and Oscar season is just around the corner, and will hopefully supply this reviewer with articles for the next three months. This week I want to take a moment to bridge the gap between horror and SERIOUS DRAMA with a movie that has a little of both but not very much of either.
Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
The Plot: Um… actually, this movie doesn’t really have all that much of a plot. Basically, depressed centuries-old musician vampire Adam (Tom Hiddleston) reconnects with his cleverly named vampire love Eve (Tilda Swinton) after a prolonged period of separation. And then they pretty much just cruise around Detroit ruminating on the state of humanity and discussing art, music, and literature. Things get more complicated when Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) shows up with a considerably less restrained appetite for blood. Also, John Hurt plays vampire Christopher Marlowe, and that’s pretty great.
This movie is directed by Jim Jarmusch, who also directed Dead Man, Ghost Dog, Coffee and Cigarettes, Broken Flowers, Stranger than Paradise, and The Limits of Control. If you’ve ever seen any of his films, you’ll have to acknowledge the undeniable truth that he possesses a preternatural ability to slow the progress of time. He does not make long movies, but they feel long. While it can certainly be considered a point of criticism, I can’t help but respect his savvy temporal manipulation. Though slow, his films are generally interesting enough to avoid boring. The result is a sort of dreamlike experience. You know how you can dream a dream that plays out in what feels like an hour, but when you wake up the entire night has passed? It’s sort of similar to that. While Only Lovers Left Alive is far and away the fastest-paced Jarmusch movie I’ve seen, it’s no exception to the dream rule.
Although about vampires, this dream never approaches nightmare territory. This is not a horror story; it’s a story about two old lovers rekindling their romance after an estrangement. The fact that they’re vampires is less important than the fact that they’re immortal and ageless. Both characters love art as deeply as one can, and embrace eternity not for fear of dying, but for the unique opportunity to witness, and in some cases contribute to, every major artistic movement, including those still unfolding. Though basically deathless bohemians, and though very pretentious at times, the thing that makes these characters work is that don’t only appreciate the old stuff, but continue to appreciate new things. For example, they have equal respect for Jack White and Schubert. They love Marlowe, but also love Oscar Wilde and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and for some reason David Foster Wallace (like I said, they’re a bit pretentious). Adam likens science to art and finds beauty in engineering and mechanics the same way he finds it in a string quintet.
Though ostensibly “children of the night,” they are wholly nonviolent, enjoying life, or at least undeath, for what it is. They’re kind of living the dream, really, endlessly enjoying all the wonderful achievements humanity has to offer without ever worrying about money, health, politics, or work. I mean, that’s what I would do if I was a vampire. Who needs to be evil when you can do pretty much anything you want? They still view humans as doomed little meat bags who can’t help but ruin countries, kill each other, and gradually grow lazier and less motivated as technology progresses, but they also like some humans, and love the potential of human creativity.
The other thing that saves this movie from being pretentious dribble is its surprising sense of humor. While never quite laughing out loud, I chuckled quite a few times. Some of the turns-of-phrase are just lovely, and the incredible sincerity with which Hiddleston and Swinton approach some truly outrageous situations serves to create a sort of self-referential, tongue-in-cheek criticism of hipsters—what The Simpsons might describe (in the ‘90s when they were good) as the ludicrously tragic, the tragically ludicrous. I’m choosing to interpret this as Jarmusch saying, “Yes, I am pretentious; I acknowledge that, but I love what I love and how I want to love it, and I don’t care what other people think of that.” I can dig it, I guess.
Unsurprisingly, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are amazing. Mia Wasikowska, though not in the movie very much, does a fantastic job as the miscreant little sister archetype, with the added twist of being an immortal sociopath. John Hurt’s Marlowe works as well as you’d expect it to, and Jeffrey Wright and Anton Yelchin are perfectly likable in some supporting roles (as mere mortals, pah).
So yeah, in (what will admittedly be a pretty weak) conclusion, Only Lovers Left Alive is a good time, and easily my favorite Jarmusch movie to date. Check it out, y’all. In the meantime, I’m going to get back to cramming as many books and movies into my brief lifetime as possible.