Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

APRIL 27, 2014


I have seen an embarrassingly low number of Jim Jarmusch films. In fact, by seeing Only Lovers Left Alive today, I doubled my intake, which is just pitiful considering how much I liked the other (Down By Law). However, since I also liked this quite a bit, I'll do my best to rectify the problem soon - at the very least I can make good on my now 15 year old promise to see "that Samurai movie that they had a trailer for at Blair Witch Project". The two films I've seen are quite different, and I can only assume Ghost Dog is just as different from these two as they are from each other, so if nothing else I can't imagine I'll find myself getting bored going through his filmography the way one might if they were to do the same for a filmmaker who doesn't stray far from the course (Jean Rollin, for example - I like his stuff, but if I watched it all in a week I'd want to kill myself).

Of course, this isn't really a horror movie in the traditional sense; of its five primary characters four of them are vampires, but there's not a lot of bloodsucking action - what little of it there WOULD be in the film's narrative takes place off-screen, though we do get a look at all of their fangs. Like many a modern vampire movie, our heroes opt for cleaner blood; protagonist Adam (a terrific Tom Hiddleston) secures his from a source at a Detroit hospital, while his wife Eve (Tilda Swinton) trades for it with another vampire (John Hurt) while living in Tangiers. They're not separated for long before she comes to Detroit for a visit, at which point he takes her around his city and shows her things like where Jack White grew up.

And that's one thing I loved about the movie; while nearly all movies about immortals throw in a reference to some historical figure as a person our ageless vampire knew, this dives deep into it. Adam is said to have known Tesla and composed music for Schubert, while Eve's friend is none other than Christopher Marlowe, still bitter about Shakespeare's success. It's a fascinating concept to basically apply a Forrest Gump style journey through history but with a vampire whose exploits can stretch a few hundred years further back - I can't help but wonder if it'd be more fun to read a novelized take on the film, free of budgetary concerns (or likeness issues) and thus able to weave even more famous folks into the tale. But don't get me wrong, that's not what it's about - Marlowe's use is primarily to get the point across of a guy who has been around for 500+ years - any character can just SAY as much, but when you have an old, bitter Marlowe hissing at Shakespeare in the present day, it carries more weight than a mere line of exposition.

But the real meat of the story is what a drag it is for vampires, something that's been explored before but never quite in this fashion. It still addresses things like contaminated blood being a problem that they didn't have to worry about "in the nth century", and being seen as mysterious because they never go out during the day, but it's always done with a dryly humorous approach that I quite enjoyed. For example, in order for them to fly back to Tangiers to Detroit, they have to ensure that the flight takes off and lands during the night, forcing them to seek out bizarre layovers that confuse travel agents - that's a new one, far as I know. And as he is a musician, Adam has to create without being seen, since he'd have to explain his non-aging - hence writing music for Schubert (and they suggest he's done the same for Neil Young), which adds to some of the humor when he interacts with a music groupie (Anton Yelchin) who just wants to do what he thinks would be the right thing and expose his talent to the venerable Detroit music scene.

I also enjoyed how Jarmusch seemed to be making fun of typical vampire motifs; at one point Adam and Eve discuss how they've both had dreams of her sister visiting, which clearly is something they dread. In any CW level vampire story, this would mean a villain who was attempting some sort of supernatural coup or curse or whatever - but as it turns out her sister is just a pain in the ass who drinks all their blood and whines about not being taken out on the town. Plus, she's played by the wonderful Mia Wasikowska, so you the viewer should be torn between wanting them to toss her on her ass and wanting her to be on-screen for every possible second, adding to the peculiar brand of fun. Sure, the movie doesn't really have much of a plot (the 3rd act, driven by a blood shortage and "we have to lay low for a while" subplot, is basically just there to get us to an ending), but there's something endlessly entertaining about watching two vampires deal with the day to day annoyances of being a vampire.

It's not a full blown comedy, however - it's actually quite touching at times, and melancholy to boot - they were turned at a time when the world was simpler and wonderful, and now it's passed them by while also making it nearly impossible to carry on with their way of life. Even suicide poses a problem - he has to task someone with making him a wooden bullet to get the job done (one of the few vampire "rules" that are acknowledged; mirrors apparently aren't a thing since Adam and Eve Skype when they are apart). Unless you count gaining incredible knowledge (there's a hilarious bit where he scoffs at someone's wiring, as he's become an expert), the movie smartly never romanticizes a single thing about being an immortal beyond never having to suffer through the death of your spouse (it's so nice to see a vampire love story about two vampires instead of the usual human/vampire connection), and the scenes of the two of them dancing or sharing a popsicle made of blood hammer that point home: everything else about their life kind of sucks, but they're perfectly happy and content together. It's quite lovely, and the age difference between the actors (with Swinton having a good 20 years on Hiddleston) was a ballsy but inspired choice - if the guy was older it'd just feel a bit too "normal", but the other way around makes it easier to understand how they complete each other in a weird way.

Of course, the lack of typical vampire action (and the two hour runtime) will probably raise a red flag for some who suspect this is just Twilight with older vampires, but that's not even remotely the case. The Hunger would be a closer point of reference, but even that would be misleading. I've never really seen anything quite like it, and while it's probably not the sort of movie I'd watch over and over, it was a far more satisfying viewing experience than all of this year's wide release full blown horror films, and comes highly recommended to anyone looking for something a little offbeat.

What say you?

*Yeah, their names are Adam and Eve. I guess it's supposed to be cute - but it's the only eye-rolling thing about the movie for me.

1 comment:

  1. I actually can't wait to see this one. I've been looking forward to it for a while now. Great write-up, I'm glad you liked it. You know your horror, so I'll take your word on it, and see this asap. Good to see you're still posting reviews from time to time.


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