Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2014) – Unsurprisingly for those schooled in the ways of the Jim Jarmusch picture, the filmmaker’s approach to vampires isn’t particularly interested in violent set pieces or dark romance. Instead, what fascinates the filmmaker about the creatures of the night is their eternal life and the mixture of boredom and stockpiled knowledge that comes along with it. His vampires are essentially aging hipsters. Cool cats with impeccable taste so set in their ways that they’re disinterested with what the kids find cool and long for a distant past that they probably didn’t enjoy that much the first time around. It’s probably how Jarmusch sees himself in some way, a man with a defined sense of cool that seemed both retro and avant-garde when he emerged from the underground New York filmmaking scene in the 80s and now feels out of place in a way that keeps him unique, yet distances him from pretty well any other American filmmaker.
As usual, Jarmusch brings together a pretty killer collection of actors to play his wayward souls and they all deliver some of the finest work of their careers. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) sulks his way through the most screen time as a vampire living in a rotting house in Detroit making retro rock under black and white photos of his many influences and also toying around with Tesla technology when he feels like it. His only contact with the human world is a local music geek Ian (Anton Yelchin) who gets Adam rare guitars and other oddities and also leaks his music out into the world one overpriced vinyl at a time. Hiddleston’s only connection to the vampire world is Eve (Tilda Swinton) a lover he’s had for an indeterminate amount of time who lives Tangiers where she sucks up classic literature constantly and pals around with her vampire buddy Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) who amongst other things secretly wrote all the works of Shakespeare. With Adam going through one of his periodic waves of suicidal depression, Eve travels to Detroit to spend time with him and her presence eventually brings along her vicious sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska). Unfortunately for the subdued vampires Adam and Eve, Ava has a bit of a bloodlust and brings some action into the picture, which bursts the lead vampires’ pretty little bubble.
Like all Jarmusch joints, the pleasures come primarily from watching the characters hang out and exist. Most of the screen time is dedicated to studying their peculiar day-to-day activities, interests, and the ways the procure blood from hospitals rather than feasting on people. It’s a deadpan comedy with tragic undertones about lost souls pining for a peace they’re unlikely to ever find. When Ava arrives, Only Lovers Left Alive turns into a vampire movie almost against the filmmaker’s will with some genuinely creepy moments and even a little action. Much like Dead Man, a genre infusion helped wake up Jarmusch after a couple of placid projects to produce what is easily his best film since the 90s. Sure, some might find it dull and it’s a shame Jarmusch wasn’t able to shoot his gothic vampire movie in black and white, but Only Lovers Left Alive brings out the best in the filmmaker. He’s created a loose deadpan character comedy with dramatic undertones, cultural deconstruction, genuine emotion, passion, and a taste of horror.
If you know Jim Jarmusch, then you’ll know his movies are defined by moody atmospheric visuals that offer as much content as anything in the screenplay. Only Lovers Left Alive is no exception and thankfully this film looks absolutely magnificent on Blu-Ray. Blacks are deep and inky (pretty important in a vamp picture) while the few colors that the director permits in the palate burst off the screen without overwhelming the image. Audio is rich and clear, particularly during the almost psychedelic (well, by minimalist Jarmusch standards anyways) music scenes.
Special features kick off with almost 30 minutes of deleted/extended scenes and given that the filmmaker tends to craft projects that feel like a series of short films strung together, there’s some wonderful material here. Even better is the 49-minute documentary about the making of the film, which takes the form of a fly-on-the-wall observation of production without any of the usual backslapping interviews that tend to drag down DVD features. It can be a bit dry and explains nothing to viewers unfamiliar with film production, but for those interested in Jarmusch that won’t be a problem. The notoriously private filmmaker has never allowed anything like this to be made before on one of his sets, so it’s a fascinating feature for Jarmusch nuts like myself.
The director might feel out of place and locked into a forgotten past like his vampires, but if Only Lovers Left Alive proves nothing else it’s that there’s still very much a place for his voice in the industry. In fact, his work feels so unlike anything else coming out of American film right now that we just might need Jim Jarmusch more than ever. (Phil Brown)