Only Lovers Left Alive might be world renowned auteur Jim Jarmusch’s most widely accessible film, but that doesn’t mean it’s a straight up vampire story or a tale of lovers under strain. It’s a eulogy for a dying way of life that paints the filmmaker as the last of a dying breed. He just so happens to equate that dying breed to the mannerisms of a vampire: classical, emotional, night owls with a lust for life, but one that grows tiresome. It’s filled with less ennui than one might expect from Jarmusch, but his dry sense of humour has thankfully remained intact and he might have also created the best characters he has ever written. It’s a film about love as an anti-aging force that keeps the world secretly moving along.
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) sits depressed and secluded within his Detroit shithole of a house, writing music and practically suicidal and begging for a death that never comes. He only interacts with his young business managed Ian (Anton Yelchin) and his lover Eve (Tilda Swinton), who now resides in Tangiers. Sensing that something is wrong with Adam and there an impending doom hanging over their lives, Eve heads to visit her one true love to find out what’s wrong. Soon their problems are made flesh and tangible by the arrival of Eve’s tranwreck of a younger sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), another vampire but one with little sense of decorum and no clue what it means to keep a low profile.
Adam and Eve are tortured artists out of time and uncomfortable in their surroundings, which has been a variation of what Jarmusch has been doing for years now: films about confident people who haven’t been in the most ideal of situations for quite some time. Adam secludes himself in Detroit, not only because Detroit is a mecca for musical types, but also because it’s a city haunted by ghosts of what it used to be. There’s a requisite scene where Adam shows Eve the now famous Detroit Theatre (now a car park) that has kind of become cliché in films set there and a sequence where the duo are on a night drive and discussing the city’s former status as an auto manufacturing giant that’s a bit on the nose (even more than Jarmusch’s choice of music, which will shock no one familiar with his work).
What’s most disarming about Only Lovers Left Alive is just how confessional and personal the whole thing feels. Adam feels like the work of a man who still deeply loves but who has run out of things to stay. The only thing existential about Adam’s quest is that all this character can see before him is a blank slate. Jarmusch spins the frame at various points (yes, like a record), but it’s not a musical metaphor. It’s symbolic of a much larger downfall and a man who has been stagnant and repeating the same cycles over and over again. It doesn’t matter that he’s a vampire on screen with a specific set of needs that need to be fulfilled. The simple art of existing has become so taxing that over centuries he questions if there’s anywhere left to go. The human part of Adam has reached its full potential.
Eve, on the other hand, is vastly more optimistic of the two and the one thing that keeps Adam/Jarmusch going after all these years. She keeps Adam grounded even at his lowest, and despite the vampirism which would suggest a hatred for humanity, there’s something deeply humane and thoughtful about their relationship. They inhabit the dark shadows of this world and corners where few would dare go and even fewer survive, but their shared experience and deep love for beautiful things have sustained them. Adam needs reminding of that, and Eve provides it.
Then there’s the curious case of Ava, who seems to represent the modern allure of Los Angeles culture. Eve is sympathetic almost to a fault, maybe out of familial obligation or a remembrance of younger days. Having lived his life largely trying to stay out of the public spotlight (and for the first time taking credit for centuries worth of work he simply gave away from free), Adam suffers none of it. Maybe it was too close to who he used to be, maybe it’s the exact opposite, but the rock and roll culture that Ava represents is something he wants no part of. She’s popular when she shouldn’t be popular; a destroyer of worlds that Adam could have been, but he never resorted to.
The metaphors of sex, drugs, and rock and roll are there within Jarmusch’s lens, but this time he has a concrete story that requires little stylistic embellishment. He’s so firmly rooted in classicism here that no less of a literary icon as Christopher Marlowe (played by a lovely John Hurt) shows up as a vampire and blood supplier. He keeps it dark and grungy like Adam and Eve would like it, and never bright and colourful like Ava would want. His focus here, unlike some of his past efforts, is firmly on story, performance, and conveying a sense of emotion through actions and a perceived history instead of through speeches and glossy cinematography.
Jarmusch also benefits from one of the best leading performances to ever grace one of his films. Hiddleston is electrifying, choosing his words and emotions carefully. He’s a man wound so tightly that suicide seems like a painfully real option. He’s beyond the point of crying about his life ending, so Hiddleston makes him sarcastic and stand-offish, but with moments where he’s able to show an immense amount of love for those closest to him, even Ian who seems like more than just a “familiar” or a means to an end for his lifestyle. Hiddleston can vacillate perfectly between rage, sadness, and an almost heartwarming kindness sometimes within the same scene. You get a sense that he’s a man who could love so deeply that he would think his life was over after every new experience. He experiences wonder and then feels sad that he couldn’t have created it himself.
Only Lovers Left Alive has only a very basic amount of vampirism to it in a literal sense, but plenty on a metaphorical level. It’s a well acted performance piece coming directly from the beating and blood pumping heart of a true artist openly wondering where to head to next. The final ten minutes suggest there’s some bite left in him yet, but not without a wake-up call that time is catching up with him. It’s one of his best and most interesting films yet.