Cult indie director Jim Jarmusch takes on the vampire genre. On the surface, this seems like a no-brainer: the spooky Jarmusch could almost pass for a vampire himself, and as so many of his films take place at night (or in daylight so bleak and cold that it might as well be night), their tone infused with a dispassionate coolness, this tale of a long-married couple of ancient bloodsuckers (Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston) fits right in. But in many ways, Only Lovers Left Alive is Jarmusch's most atypical film.
For starters, the director once synonymous with achingly long takes and wide shots films rather traditionally, with master shots, close-ups, over-the-shoulder shots, etc. It's not to say that Only Lovers has no visual style - in fact, Jarmusch reveals an almost fetishistic interest in cross-dissolves - but its accessibility is rather surprising. On the down side, I found the digital cinematography (by French DP Yorick Le Saux) to be distracting. The texture and grain of film was so fundamental to Jarmusch's earlier works. But even now, while so many movies are shot and projected digitally, this footage looks a little flat.
Getting past that, this is the kind of "hangout movie" that Jarmusch is famous for. It's drily witty, it's introspective, it's literate. But as Jarmusch ages, I think his films are becoming increasingly easy to figure out. The two locations of the film, Detroit and Tangier, are evocative locales and complement each other nicely, but they're rather too obvious for the filmmaker. The ruined Motor City is already a source of fascination for America's hipoisie, and Tangier's been exotically cool ever since William Burroughs went there. Why not more unexpected choices like Kansas City and Bratislava?
Hiddleston and especially Swinton are ideally cast as vampires Adam and Eve (ha ha). Whereas Eve seems happy to keep up with the times, Adam is consumed by the past. After centuries on Earth, his somber musician is beyond jaded; only antiques - decades-old guitars, a clunky old cathode ray tube TV he uses for Skype, and even a stethoscope from the 1960s - hold his interest. He's so fed up with the dullness of humans - whom the vampires in this film refer to as "zombies" - that he even has a wooden bullet made, for when he just can't take the lameness of the world anymore.
It's not hard to interpret Adam as Jarmusch's own stand-in. But it's a pity that Jarmusch can't quite poke fun at Adam's - and thus his own - morose, "everything used to be so much cooler than it is now" attitude. Instead he ultimately romanticizes it - and thus himself. Decades of fawning hipster love, especially from Europeans (indeed, Only Lovers Left Alive is a European production), may have inflated the director's self-importance. I'd like to see him take himself down a peg someday.
Until such a time, Only Lovers Left Alive is still a decent film, not on par with the rest of Jarmusch's oeuvre (most of which I truly love), but an agreeable two hours. Swinton and Hiddleston are hugely appealing, and their professionalism grounds the film, giving it a warmth and depth that the non-actors who populate much of Jarmusch's early work could never provide.