Time Killers, by David Bax
Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive is his first film since 2009’s limp, poorly received The Limits of Control and he doesn’t waste any time shrugging off that movie’s pallor and letting you know he’s returned to the dry cheekiness that has marked all of his best work. Lovers is a vampire story and Jarmusch welcomes you into it with a giallo-inspired font against a slightly campy, slightly beautiful background of spinning stars. Then, quickly but effortlessly, he transitions the spinning motif from lighthearted to weighty. He introduces our two main undead protagonists, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) via overhead shots that spin in a way that visually mirrors the record Adam is listening to but that also speaks to the eternal, circular nature of this couple and their kind. Finally, almost jarringly, the spinning stops. Later, one of these characters, despite the awareness of his immortality, will remark with perennially cool jadedness that he feels like the last grains of sand falling through the hourglass. Do even these ageless creatures have an expiration date, zooming toward them from the horizon? After just a few wordless minutes, Jarmusch has given you most of the scope of his film as well as a good indication that Only Lovers Left Alive is one of his most assured and powerful works.
Adam and Eve refer to one another as husband and wife but they live on opposite sides of the world, he in Detroit and she in Tangier. While Facetiming (of course vampires Facetime; don’t be prejudiced), Eve is concerned by Adam’s malaise and decides to come see him, leaving behind one of her oldest friends, a fellow vampire played by John Hurt, who wears a 400-year-old waistcoat and knows a French doctor who can get them the best blood. Eventually, they are joined in Detroit by Eve’s “sister,” Ava (Mia Wasikowska) and all three hang out with Adam’s clueless but sweet-natured human friend, Ian (Anton Yelchin).
Jarmusch establishes a dichotomy of thought on the passage of time in the way he employs his two settings. Tangier is ancient but beautiful and modern technology like cars and smartphones are integrated organically into it. Detroit, a young city by comparison, is ravaged and depleted. It seems at first to exist only to feed on itself, rotting out from the abandoned factories that once constituted its heart. These competing ideas – things persist or things fall apart – find resonance in the worldviews of the characters who occupy them. In fact, Detroit seems to possess more life, even more humanity, once the optimistic Eve arrives. She posits that the city is merely in transition and will thrive again.
In the meantime, while things either get better or worse, these vampires spend their endless time consuming. Not people – at least not for the most part; they are more compassionate and pragmatic than that. What they consume is culture. They may be the foremost experts on art, literature and music in this or any era. Despite having a number of advantages over humanity and the things it produces, they are the ultimate fans, the eternal audience. They are, it should also be noted, white. And not just from lack of sunlight. None of the vampires is anything but Caucasian. Jarmusch seems to be commenting that the ability to develop cultural or intellectual expertise is solely the realm of the privileged. It’s never explained how but the vampires here do have a lot of money literally lying around. A photo of Adam and Eve from the 1860s inspires a good laugh line (“Where we ever so young?”) but it also provokes us to ponder how easy they – moneyed and white – have had it at every single point in history.
Like many lifelong devotees of art, some of these vampires have creative aspirations of their own, though the necessity of not drawing too much attention creates complications. Hurt’s character is a writer, many of whose works were published under a different name. Adam releases his droning rock instrumentals anonymously. When asked why he released them at all, he ironically states, “I needed a reflection.”
Lest you worry that Jarmusch has drained all the vampiric traces out of vampire movie, know that many of the tropes are well-respected. They have the same weaknesses (sunlight, wood through the heart) and the same strengths (superhuman speed and, well, immortality) as classic vampires. And rest assured that there is some bloodletting (whew!). Jarmusch also toys with references to the classics and to the horror genre as a whole. The coyotes that have taken up residence in deserted parts of Detroit recall Count Dracula’s “children of the night.” And there’s a genuine creepiness when the power goes out in Adam’s house. Despite his trademark detachment, Jarmusch is not above injecting the film with some real suspense. Eve seems to own a copy of every book ever printed but the only reference to Chekhov and his gun is a wordless allusion.
The seemingly aloof presentation that graces all of Jarmusch’s work is deceptive. His distance is actually more enveloping than alienating. By hanging back, he allows his world to fill the frame to its edges. He only suggests to your eye where it might go rather than fascistically insisting on a singular point like other noted “stylistic” directors (say, David Fincher on a bad day). As a result, the effect is even more pronounced when he does make a relatively grand gesture. When the vampires drink blood, for instance, the camera follows their tilting heads back in the universal cinematic signal for “high as fuck.”
Sitting around lush dens, getting high while surrounded by records and musical instruments… Only Lovers Left Alive is full of reminiscences of the 1960’s (except for the Facetiming, of course). Perhaps it’s accurate to portray someone who is thousands of years old as being about 50 years behind the times. Maybe Jarmusch feels like that too. This is his first digital film and, in many ways, it is about the fact that the world will eventually pass you by, no matter how spectacularly cool you are. Still, with its beauty, humor and transfixing mood, Lovers is proof that we’ve still got lifetimes worth of coolness to mine from the films of Jim Jarmusch.