Dead Man and Ghost Dog saw Indie favourite Jim Jarmusch bring his quirky idiosyncrasies to more traditionally visceral genres. Ghost Dog is worlds away from a traditional Yakuza or Gangster film and the same is true for Dead Man with westerns. His 12th legitimate feature Only Lovers Left Alive continues that trend of approaching genres from the left-field with Vampire film that is both romantic and comedic. The relationship between the two leads is one of absolute love; this is not a film about sex or a contrived meet-cute likewise the humour all comes from a very literal and deadpan place – make no mistake this is as pure a Jim Jarmusch film as you are likely to see.
At the core of the film is a question: what defines a vampire? Its immortality spent under moonlight. From that shell we meet the sarcastically named Adam (Hiddleston) & Eve (Swinton). He is an underground rock musician and she is in complete understanding of the world around her. They may be thousands of miles apart in Detroit and Tangiers, but they are deeply in love unable to function without one another. In what one would assume to be their first face-to-face contact in years the prodigal child, Eva (Wasikowska), returns causing all manner of problems for the lovers.
Whether its New York cab drivers or Vampires, the outsider is what Jarmusch is most fascinated by and in Adam and Eve he may have found his apex. Adam is a reclusive rock musician who creates music as a solitary pursuit to tangibly reflect something real into the darkness. His is a life of necessity and deep depression. Eve is the light of his life as she comes from a more understanding place, instead of living by the fleeting values of normal humans she lives for herself and the nature world. If the Mia Wasikowska’s role achieves anything it’s creating a point of contrast, with her being the normal human. She comes as close as anybody to recreating that ‘vampire smile’ from 1985’s Fright Night, yet she is notable for her humanity and weaknesses, qualities that have been repressed by Adam and Eve.
In developing these characters as humans who see the long-term consequences a less than complimentary subtext on the modern man is introduced, whilst also questioning how viewers can continue to watch the same vampire tropes and characters without question. Every trope and tradition has its breaking point, and Only Lovers Left Alive shows how long ago that point was passed.
The Detroit that Adam calls home is a husk of a city, appearing in an almost dystopian state of disrepair likewise Tangiers is a labyrinth of anaemic streets occupied only by street-traders. The conditioning of these cities are outwards expressions of Eve, Adam, Eva and Marlowe’s (Christopher Marlow, that is (Hurt)) belief that ‘the zombies’ (normal human) have poisoned themselves and the world around them. With such a train of thought coming from Jarmusch’s typically eloquent deadbeats, a more mature depth is realised to a film whose director is typically interested in much more superficial ends.
This would all make the film sound like it takes itself awfully seriously, and maybe the subtext is. On the surface this is a much more enjoyable film, in developing an alternative vampire history Jarmusch gets to play around with this mythology with visual gags and the uncannily condescending dialogue and social conventions that blatantly blusters their way into the deadpan. It’s all too predictable then that the characters become a [morbid] joy to spend time with through the detail of Jarmusch’s script and the same brilliant acting that has elevated John Hurt, Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton to the top of the game.
Script isn’t the only department that deserves plaudit when it comes to the detail, the set designers have done something that should sound impossible – they have made analogue recording kit and a mess of guitars and junk look sexy. Art directors Anja Fromm & Anu Schwartz have created the sort of beautiful mess that articulately expresses that there is just as much an art in making a location look the part as the cinematographer or composers. The atmospheric doom of the psych drone score by Jozef van Wissem & Sqürl (Jarmusch’s band) can only be described as perfect. Maybe not perfect as a listening experience for the more casual ear, but in creating a sense of identity there couldn’t be a more perfectly suited score.
It may be the thinnest premise for a trilogy since Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, but with the completion of Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch has given us his romantically oddball work since Dead Man and Ghost Dog, completing one of the great modern trilogies in the process. The only negative comes through patience, and this is as Jarmusch as a film could be.