Do you think that a good vampire movie requires buckets of blood and stakes through hearts? If so, you should broaden your expectations and see Jim Jarmusch’s sublimely beautiful new film “Only Lovers Left Alive”. It is a subtle piece of horror that emphasizes character over action, and mood over dread. It’s haunting, but not in the ways you’d expect. And it’s easily one of the best horror movies of the year.
If you’re a Jim Jarmusch fan, you know that he is not a filmmaker inclined towards ginormous tentpole Hollywood thinking. He's not even a big believer in story structure. Quite the contrary, he’s always been more interested in how people relate to each other and the emotions they are experiencing. And even when his films have typical Hollywood movie elements to them, he resists the well-worn clichés of their genres. “Down By Law” may have been about escaped prisoners, but it was hardly “The Great Escape”. And his samurai character in “Ghost Dog” bore little resemblance to any sword slinger in 'chop sake' B-movies.
Thus, as he turns his attention to the world of horror, he's managed to make an eccentric and uniquely Jarmusch tale of terror. His film is not filled with hissing Nosferatu’s and gory castles. Heck, it’s not even filled with star-crossed teenagers who shimmer like disco balls in the sunlight. Instead, the vampires in his movie are serious adults who’ve seen a lot in their centuries on earth and have learned to be more human than monster to survive. What's he's done is make an incredibly unique love story about a lasting relationship, and this moving film ranks with his best work (http://bit.ly/1tCZDJG).
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a musical genius who’s grown bored with life in Detroit after living so many lifetimes in so many places. He’s seen classical, blues, jazz, and rock all born first-hand, and he’s contributed greatly to their births. He’s still dabbling with writing, though mostly underground, and living in hiding has taken a toll on him. He's grown depressed with the arrogant and selfish humans around him who don't appreciate art or have the same sense of nostalgia that he has. In fact, Adam calls them “zombies” and reckons that mankind is in an unending decline. Thus, he’s had a wooden bullet crafted in case he decides to chuck it all.
He wears his weariness as easily as he does his dark clothing and pitch black, metal band hair, but his wife is his opposite. Eve (Tilda Swinton) is upbeat and sunny, swathed in the colors of the daylight. Her hair is honey blonde and her leather and suede are soft, sunny yellow and gentle to the touch. She wants him to spend more time with her and enjoy all that is still good in the world, but she's willing to give him his space as an artist and lives apart from him for months at a time in Tangier. It's a complex and richly rewarding relationship. They're husband and wife, faithful lovers, and best friends. We should all be so fortunate.
Despite being undead, theirs is one loving relationship, alive and well. They have a wonderfully droll banter together, practically finishing each other’s sentences. And these two lovers still have mad passion for each other. Adam and Eve are also on the same page about many important matters too, like avoiding undue attention and unnecessary drama from the outside world. They've got money to buy blood on the black market so they don't have to hunt for food. They keep a low profile. And the prefer a teeny circle of acquaintances and friends, knowing that the more they let in, they more they could be outed.
Halfway through the movie, their comfortable existence is challenged by the arrival of Eve’s wayward sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska). She’s sixteen going on seven hundred years or so. Adam and Eve end up having to ‘parent’ hedonistic sis as she's driven by her lusts.
Jarmusch resists the clichés that could occur with such an interloper. There are no cataclysmic fight scenes or jump-out-of-your seat scares with the problems Ava creates. Instead, her selfish actions create complicated consequences that challenge Adam and Eve and force them to question their safety and surroundings. She may be 'the snake' that drives them out of their 'garden of Eden', but she's hardly a viperous villain.
In Jarmusch’s story, it’s the outside world that is much more intimidating than the vampires. Adam's home of Detroit is portrayed as a desolate, abandoned shell, a once-great city reeling from decades of business and population exodus'. Danger can occur in any public place and expose their secrets, so they're always on their guard. And of course, the winding streets of Tangier are a dangerous place for anyone, especially one such as the tall and strikingly blonde Eve.
This is a horror movie where melancholy is the primary sense one feels watching it; not fear, not dread, but rather a sense of longing for a better world that was and may never be again. The haunting of this movie comes from the saddening realization that all of us may be living on borrowed time, even those who've survived for hundred of years.
Even their friend Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), the great Elizabethan playwright, has a sense his time may be coming to an end. He's aged into an old man, and he's like Adam in that his nostalgia is clouding his vision. It's long been rumored that Marlowe wrote all of Shakespeare's plays and this movie has a lot of fun with that (http://bit.ly/1ojOHkm). It's another reason that Hurt's Marlowe is hurting. He's lived as a hermit, unknown and unheralded for too long, and it's all starting to catch up with him.
Hurt can do aging sage in his sleep, and he adds a lovely gravitas to this film too. Swinton and Hiddleston give clever, knowing performances, some of their best efforts ever on screen. And Swinton has never been more attractive in a movie either. She wears her fashion-forward hipster like it's a second skin here.
Wasikowska continues to prove that she’s one of her generation’s best actresses, and even though Ava's spoiled, she still remains a likable and funny character. There’s also a nice comic turn delivered here by Anton Yelchin. He plays Adam’s gopher Ian, a music industry wannabe who is the only real contact Adam has with the outside world.
If you think that there's nothing new to be mined in vampire lore, think again. “Only Lovers Left Alive” breathes new life into the horror genre as well as the romance genre. It reminds us that if you’ve got a loving partner in life, then you can not only get through a bad day, but a bad century or two as well.