This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2014.
Jim Jarmusch has made a vampire movie, and despite this surprising detour into genre, it's kind of the Jim Jarmuschiest. Your enjoyment of it will likely depend on how you react to that phrase, provided it means anything to you at all. I'm a fan of the filmmaker, and so for me Only Lovers Left Alive was pretty wondrous to behold. It's got the spirit of old rock 'n' roll mixed with romantic poetry and gothic gloom, powered by Einstein's theory of spooky action. It should come as no surprise. Jim is a man who made a film with Screamin' Jay Hawkins, after all. He knows for spooky.
Only Lovers Left Alive is a tale of two draculas: the worldly literature aficionado Eve (Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton [review]) and her brooding soulmate Adam (Tom Hiddleston, The Avengers [review]). Their love spans the centuries. They have seen man--or zombies, as they ironically call the everyday norms--rise and fall, experienced cultural shifts and artists renaissances. One of their best friends is Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt, Alien [review], Melancholia [review]), the playwright, who didn't die in ye olde England, but was transformed. In Jarmusch's world, vampires are creative sophisticates whose super powers include an affinity with nature that allows them to identify flora and fauna and test the age of objects just by touching them.
They are also subject to their thirst, and a regular intake of blood is required or they will quickly deteriorate and die. These creatures of the night must find their sustenance from more legit, verifiable channels in the 21st Century, however; disease and toxins have contaminated the population and random draws from untested subjects could mean death once and for all. This and many other things have led Adam to despair. He hides in a house in Detroit, recording dark rock dirges and collecting old guitars and old records. Seeing that her love is in a dangerous funk, Eve leaves her own home in Tangiers to be with him. Amour is quickly rekindled, and undead angst begins to get sorted.
Jarmusch has never had much use for conventional plot, and the happenings of Only Lovers Left Alive hearken back to his second feature, Stranger Than Paradise [review], in that it is an episodic depiction of individuals in stasis looking to be in flux. There is no maguffin or instigating incident or other screenwriting buzzword; rather, there are two people who have been apart and we see their average routines and how they come together. Some of the best scenes are with Adam and Eve on their own, laying together on the couch, playing ancient 45s. Swinton is at her most weird and wonderful, buzzing with the electricity of life, more alive than the mortals who supply her nutrition. Hiddleston makes for a good companion, even if he is just working a variation of his Loki character from the Thor movies--or at least the sad adolescent side of Loki, minus the trickster. (Which is fine. I've kind of grown weary of the actor's omnipresent fan service playing Cool Geek on the internet.)
The disruptive agent here is instead Eve's little sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska, Stoker [review]), who breezes in to cause trouble and, well, doesn't so much breeze out as she is chased away. If Eve's life was arrested at a crucial moment of maturity, Ava was "turned" at a juncture where she would be the eternal brat. It's fun watching Wasikowska let her hair down. Her specialty may be sad and strange, but she shows there are still more possibilities for her if a casting director wants to get ambitious.
Only Lovers Left Alive is Jarmusch's first film to be shot on digital. He and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (I Am Love [review]) find a satisfying aesthetic together, two parts Nick Cave music video, one part late 1960s album cover. The movie opens with a virtuoso montage mimicking a spinning record. Another sequence shortly after links the daily blood ritual of its vampiric trio by emphasizing the orgasmic, drug-like effects of the liquid life. The movements are more beautiful and vibrant than we might otherwise expect from Jarmusch, and it suits him. The freedom of these moments provides a nice contrast to the more drab and earthbound lives of the day dwellers.
As long as there have been seedy nightclubs and artists and hipsters to enjoy them, these folks have been referred to as creatures of the night and other such haunted sobriquets. When it comes down to it, even for all the creative enhancements Jarmusch lends the bloodsucking mythos, Only Lovers Left Alive is really their story. Swinton and Hiddleston are every cool couple you've seen walking home at 3 a.m., impervious to last call and the stink of cigarettes, still hearing their own music long after the band has loaded their equipment into the van. As it turns out, we were right all along: they are cooler than the rest of us, more in love, more in tune with the harmonics of the universe. And hell, if they're draculas, too, so be it. I'm down.