The Dead Don’t Die: Nothing Settled, Nothing Remains, by Scott Nye
The Dead Don’t Die is undoubtedly the stupidest film writer/director Jim Jarmusch has made. It is half-formed, inconclusive, often free from motivation, repetitive without finding that zen space he’s best known for, and is relentlessly nihilistic about basically everyone and everything. It’s a very good time at the movies. I could describe any scene to you with a giant grin on my face, or the whole movie with a series of questions. It makes absolutely no sense. If you expect from your movies a vision, a throughline, a carefully-built argument, you will not find it here. It concludes by outright stating that the world’s a fucked-up place, but you knew that already. But with a cast billed as “The Greatest Zombie Cast Ever Disassembled,” there isn’t a moment that goes by that isn’t utterly inspired.
Police Chief Cliff Robertson (not the film’s sole allusion to major cinematic figures), along with Officers Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny) are responsible for keeping the peace in Centerville, PA, a small town with a population in the 700s. Everybody knows everybody else, and they know what to expect from life. Most of the town is pretty friendly; Hank Thompson (Danny Glover) might be a little wary of Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi), who steadfastly wears his Keep America White Again hat at the town’s only diner; gas station owner Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones) needs a daily dose of wisdom from his (W)UPS delivery man Dean (RZA); and Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) is known to stir the pot from time to time. But generally the town keeps on keeping on. So when the town’s rhythms gradually get upset – say, it’s still daylight at 8:20pm – that’s enough to say things aren’t going to end well.
That’s to say nothing of the hipsters (Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, Luka Sabbat) who roll through town, or the recent arrival of the mysterious new Scottish mortician Zelda (Tilda Swinton), who practices with a samurai sword in the back of the funeral home. The town sure is getting weirder. And then the diner’s waitress (Eszter Balint) and janitor (Rosal Colon) turn up dead, and sure it could be a wild animal (or several), but Ronnie is pretty sure this looks like a zombie attack. And wouldn’t you know it, the recent bout of polar fracking just might have thrown the Earth off its axis and unleashed a whole lot of unexplored forces…
Things only get weirder from there. Everybody’s familiar enough with zombie lore to come well prepared – aim for the head and all that – but the extent to which, say, Ronnie is prepared seems almost sociopathic. Mindy, by contrast, might seem hysterical compared to everybody else, but she’s also having by far the most humane reaction to what might very well be the end of the world. And it’s a small town, so it’s only a matter of time before these corpses become a lot less anonymous and you start seeing some people you haven’t thought much about in awhile.
Jarmusch doesn’t push these elements as far as he could. There’s an angle on the film that could become about how the world is going to hell, or about coming to terms with the past you think is buried, or about how our habits come to define us. Perhaps if he’d “developed” these “themes” a little more “fully,” the reception at Cannes might’ve been less chilly. As an opening night film at the world’s most prestigious festival, it is an odd choice. But watching it any other night, there’s something extremely appealing about his refusal to grant the film any degree of importance, to focus his delights instead on odd bits of behavior, line readings, and utterly ridiculous plot developments (even calling them “twists” does a disservice to that device). Most of the cast has worked with Jarmusch before, many of them in lead roles, and he’s tailored the characters to their strengths, Murray and Driver in particular. Often they just have to regard one another in some way, and that alone builds a world of character; their deadpan talent at something as simple as Driver pulling up in his too-small Smart car is extraordinary.
Through this rather simple scope, Jarmusch does still give a vision of the world, one that it absurd and unpredictable, a stampede circling the drain, at once assured of its own doom and certain it will see it through. Maybe it is a stupid movie, but who ever said art had to be smart? Sometimes it’s enough to capture an essential hopelessness, to twist our expectation for safety by reveling in a type of comedy that frequently assures us we will land okay, to open us up to the possibility that things will go wrong in all sorts of catastrophically insane ways for which there is absolutely no explanation, reason, or firm conclusion.
It’s kind of terrific.