December 18, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive Review (Jim Jarmusch)

Only Lovers Left Alive is one of the year's most vibrant films.
Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive is one of the year's most vibrant films.

Jim Jarmusch’s characters move slower than most people we see on screen. They spend time obsessing over Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell on You” or discussing the use of nicotine as an insecticide. They love music and books but not with a glossy pop-culture fandom. They ride around in taxis and old cars at a time of night when few others are awake. Cigarette smoke fills their homes while blues and old rock ‘n’ roll plays in the background. They’re content to lounge on the couch and play records while the world zooms into nothingness. Jarmusch is the right filmmaker to depict vampires who’ve been observing humanity for centuries. The beings in Only Lovers Left Alive recognize cycles of life and won’t exert much energy. It’s best to just enjoy the ride while the human “zombies” destroy the Earth.

A prime example is Adam (Tom Hiddleston), who lives alone in an abandoned part of Detroit. He’s surrounded by old photographs of figures like Nikola Tesla, Mark Twain, Billie Holiday, and Johann Sebastian Bach. These former contemporaries are gone while Adam’s life is static. His house includes assorted musical instruments and outdated devices retrofitted to stay functional. His FaceTime with Eve (Tilda Swinton) involves an old cordless phone and an antiquated color TV.

Adam’s a genius but avoids society. Music brings solace, yet even that can’t solve his loneliness. The only savior is Eve — his wife across multiple centuries. Her rampant curiosity offsets his dreary perspective, and they just work. Living amid a mass of books in Tangier, Eve grabs her favorites and journeys to Detroit. Once the pair re-connects, it’s difficult to consider them anywhere but right beside each other’s side.

Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (Tom Hiddleston) visit the remnants of the Michigan Theatre.
Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (Tom Hiddleston) visit the remnants of the Michigan Theatre.

It’s intriguing to watch the quiet comfort that Swinton and Hiddleston bring to their characters. She’s several decades older, yet they feel like equals. There’s no hesitation or nervousness between the pair. Eve and Adam are so familiar with each other after centuries that it’s easy to re-connect no matter how long it’s been. The actors sell this connection with little dialogue, and that’s where Jarmusch’s confidence in the languid style really works. He gives the characters room to breathe, and spending time with them is refreshing.

The film’s best sequence has Eve and Adam driving around Detroit and visiting the sights. There’s a wonderful moment at the house where Jack White grew up that epitomizes Jarmusch’s humor. It’s a quick scene yet totally fits with the type of guy the characters would love. The gorgeous Michigan Theatre (now a parking lot) provides a striking setting for pondering what’s been lost. We get the sense that the vampires recognize the impending doom of our decadent society.

Even a Jarmusch film sometimes has conflict, and that arrives with the tumultuous Ava (Mia Wasikowska). She’s more like a five-year-old than the wise veterans and acts without thinking. While part of me would have preferred just hanging with Adam and Eve, there’s a clear function to Ava. She reminds them that being a vampire isn’t always so glamourous. Without a supplier of pure blood, it’s difficult to avoid getting contaminated on the streets.

It’s clever for Jarmusch to show a different side of the ways we’ve poisoned ourselves and the Earth. Even the vampires don’t want us! Their night out at the rock club shows how cool these night owls remain in that world. Adam is an underground music sensation and barely realizes it, and the trio presents a striking image of hipness to the young club patrons. Those fans are embodied by poor Ian (Anton Yelchin), Adam’s dim-witted connection to the outside world.

Eve and Marlowe (John Hurt) don't mind relaxing after living for so many years.
Eve and Marlowe (John Hurt) don't mind relaxing after living for so many years. 

Ava leaves while deriding Adam and Eve as “condescending snobs”, and that description is partially accurate. He only drinks the good stuff through his supplier Dr. Watson (an offbeat Jeffrey Wright). She prefers to hang with her pal Marlowe (John Hurt), who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. They’re upper-class vampires that are very particular about their associates. The final act breaks down this fa├žade and reminds Adam and Eve about their true nature. They may prefer to live away from society, but it doesn’t take much to push them back to the streets. The good stuff is gone, and what’s left isn’t so clean. Hints of this real nature come with something as simple as a cut finger by a nearby passenger on the plane. They’re a different type of old-school creature, but the lust for blood still draws them closer to Ava’s approach.

What keeps Only Lovers Left Alive from becoming too static are Jarmusch’s stylistic touches, particularly the music. The opening credits appear in front of stars as the image spins in circles and morphs into a record album. Wanda Jackson sings “my head is spinning around and around” and the rooms spin right with it. Shots of Adam and Eve sprawled on their couches are our first looks at them while the circling continues. It’s an evocative way to begin the story that grabs you, and it’s hardly the only example. Another great scene has them listening to Charlie Feathers’ distinctive voice in “Can’t Hardly Stand It” at Adam’s house, and it’s a quintessential Jarmusch moment. His confidence about these characters shines through right to the final shot and delivers one of his best films.

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4 comments:

  1. Man, this was a great film. Jim Jarmusch really did something that was incredible and put the bite back in vampires after a period of awful young-adult novels. I also loved the film's music and what it wanted to say about the world and how some things are just going away.

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    1. I definitely got the sense on nostalgia for artists long gone with the music and all the references. I feel silly for taking so long to see this movie. I'm a Jarmusch fan, but this is still one of my favorites from him.

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  2. I appreciate the idea of a vampire love story over centuries, and liked how it with its approach refrained from tons of “feeding scenes” we tend to see in vampire movies.
    I get that these characters are living a quiet, secluded life, but I just wish there had been a bit more at stake for the characters. To me, it was a situation and not really a story, and became dull after a while. I prefer other Jarmusch films, but I should give Only Lovers another shot sometime. Jarmusch's Mystery Train I disliked on first viewing and enjoyed on rewatch. Go figure!

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    1. It's interesting that you mention the stakes. It's weird for me to say this given how I usually react, but I might have preferred even fewer stakes. I do think that Jarmusch films tend to get better with repeat viewings. That was definitely the case with me for Dead Man.

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