By SARA McBRIDE
I fucking hate Jim Jarmusch.
Seriously. If there is any justice in the universe, one day I will have the opportunity to meet the man and viciously beat the 121 minutes out of him that I wasted on DEAD MAN. He owes it to me. Whether I get hit by a bus tomorrow or die surrounded by great great granchildren when the cryochamber fails, I’ll be thinking at the last that I could have used those two hours for something productive, like wiping dogshit off my shoe or scouting public restroom stalls just a little more carefully before entering them. If it weren’t for DEAD MAN I could have sat in a cold tinkle sprinkle maybe twenty fewer times in my life. That’s enough right there to want to sock a man in the nose.
So you can imagine how I felt when I heard that Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston were filming a vampire movie... directed by Jim Jarmusch. It’s like those “good news, bad news” jokes. One of my dad’s lodge buddies tells this one: guy’s in the hospital after a car runs over his legs, and the doctor comes in and says he’s got good news and bad news. The bad news is, we’re going to have to amputate both your legs. The good news is, the man in the next bed wants to buy your sneakers!
That feeling you got when you read that joke? That’s the kind of feeling I get when I think about there being a Jarmusch movie out there that I might actually have to watch.
I was a real brat about it, too. I picked ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE up from the library (because I wasn’t about to let that man have any of my money! and also because I’m a librarian and it’s extremely convenient) and I ended up paying a week of fines on it because I kept telling Wallace “I guess we have to watch that godddamned Jim Jarmusch movie…” so obviously he didn’t push it and I was in no hurry. So let’s add an extra buck fifty to what Jarmusch owes me.
The titular lovers are centuries-old vampires who have been married for some unspecified long, long time and now “live” happily apart but in harmonious contact. Eve (Tilda Swinton) occupies an Arabian Nights bedsit in Tangiers, where she dances alone and gets her blood supply from Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who’s got the hookup with some good, clean O+. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) works on his music and science-stuff in a decrepit Detroit Victorian. Pretty good choice for a savvy vampire. No neighbors, and it’s not like you need reliable city water.
The immortal life is getting a little too long for Adam and he’s thinking about packing it in. Eve calls for a chat and can tell something’s wrong, so she makes the trip to Detroit to see him and spend some time together stargazing and regarding decrepit factories. Their visit is interrupted by the arrival of Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) from Los Angeles. Ava is quite another kind of vampire, popping out of another movie altogether - she’s petulant, greedy, and reckless. She’s almost certainly very old, but she acts like a “young” vampire in the most obnoxious ways. She wants to go party with, ugh, the humans. Eve convinces Adam to humor her because after all, she’s family. Of course Ava gets carried away and drains poor Ian (Anton Yelchin), Adam’s rock-Renfield. You don’t get to be as old as Adam and Eve without being very cautious, so once they dispose of the body they flee to Tangiers with just their carry-on luggage.
Unfortunately, Marlowe’s source in Tangiers has dried up and he’s dying of contaminated blood, leaving Adam and Eve in a desperate spot.
Of course, this is the kind of movie that’s far too classy to use the “v” word, but then again I suppose there’s no need for actual ancient vampires to run around talking about vampires. In the same manner, they don’t talk about how old they are or how they met or who sired them or precisely which Vampire Rules apply. The film doesn’t supply any of the standard vampire fiction backstory, which adds to the intimate feel of the relationship portrait. I felt the one misstep in that personal, low key tone was the Marlowe character — nothing wrong with Hurt’s performance, but the character’s basic existence as a “nudge nudge wink wink told you those Stratfordians were hiding something!” joke didn’t fit. It’s a little like making a really heartfelt Victorian time travel movie that’s about very specific characters and their tragic relationship and having Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper show up. ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE focuses deeply on the space between Adam and Eve and on what exactly it means to spend an eternity with somebody you love.
It seems that both approaches to vampirehood are paths to madness: you can live fully in the world and develop relationships with the living, watching them die like mayflies for centuries, or you can take yourself away from humanity in your lair and become so out of touch that you can’t function in any meaningful way and are entirely alone. Ava seems to be drawn to the living, while Adam and Eve attempt to be alone together. It works better for Eve; she’s clearly older and more complete in and of herself. Adam struggles with the artist’s quandary; he can’t live a creative life without an audience. He’s been releasing inventions through scientists over the years and music through underground radio stations, which of course puts both his existence and his sanity in jeopardy. Would he be better able to accept eternity if he didn’t try to connect with humanity? It’s interesting that he’s both closer to the living and more contemptuous of them; he calls them “zombies” with a lot of nerve for a bloodsucker. It’s pretty easy to sniff at people for not making more of their lives when you bought into the East India Company early and certainly don’t have to come home from work to cook dinner.
There’s also the undertone of addiction with these characters. Adam and Eve think of themselves as epicureans; they sip their blood from elegant cordial glasses and look down their noses at Ava, the “wrong” sort of user, who rudely asks where Adam’s supply is and eventually ends up drinking right from the source. Ugh, how tacky. Of course, when it comes right down to it and they’re on the brink of starvation there’s no question of whether they’ll go gently into that good night. They rationalize it with the suggestion that they could turn the two young lovers they find in a Tangiers alley - how romantic! But it’s clear they’d do anything necessary for the fix they need to keep going.
Tilda Swinton is fantastic as Eve, of course. When you consider her roles - CONSTANTINE, ORLANDO, THE WAR ZONE, and WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN come to mind – it seems inconceivable that anybody else could ever have been cast for her parts. Here she’s otherworldly, walking through the Algiers night in a white leather jacket and head scarf, somehow oddly blending in and sticking out at the same time in the North African city despite her utter paleness. Tom Hiddleston, who I’ve only previously seen as Loki in a variety of Marvel films, more than holds his own in their scenes, and it’s their interactions, often wordless, that drive the film. I’ll reluctantly admit that Jarmusch’s usual excesses really work here; the slow tempo brings the viewer into the long nights these creatures inhabit and the static compositions invite investigation of the negative spaces between the characters.
So yes, I found a Jarmusch film I quite liked. I still want my DEAD MAN hours back though.
Sara Shiver McBride is qualified to neither speak nor write about film, but once lost on Jeopardy. She makes up one half of the podcast team of DAY DRINKING WITH SARA AND ALEXIS.