Jim Jarmusch’s Vampire Tale Is Both Timeless And Poignant



Only Lovers Left Alive was my first Jim Jarmusch film.  As such, I wasn‘t sure exactly what to expect.  I have since learned that Jarmusch’s films tend to be characterized by leisurely, methodical pacing; focusing more on character study than action of plot.  Jarmusch films are also heavily influenced by music—they often feature esoteric alt-rock and alt-pop icons like Tom Waits and Iggy Pop.  Jarmusch himself is a musician—here he has teamed up (via his band SQÜRL, which is made up of Jarmusch along with Carter Logan and Shane Stoneback) with frequent collaborator Jozef Van Wissem to produce one of the best scores of the year, a minimalist, hypnotic blend of melodic and droning electric guitars, blended with Arabic sitars[1] and infused with medieval lutes and mandolins.  The haunting and esoteric soundtrack pairs magnificently with the movie’s slow but intense burn.[2]

Only Lovers Left Alive is a Jim Jarmusch film through and through, from the characters to the dialogue to the music.  I saw it with a friend and fellow film critic who is a big fan of Jarmusch’s oeuvre, and he really dug the film.  But as a Jarmusch neophyte, I came into the movie more excited about what looked to be a unique, high-quality vampire film—something to wash the taste of dreck like Twilight and Vampire Academy out of the collective pop-culture brainpan.

So, “Only Lovers” is a good Jarmusch film, but is it a good vampire film?

In a word, yes.  It turns out that Jarmusch’s prescient sense of otherworldly ennui is pretty much a perfect fit for the character of Adam (Tom Hiddleston, replacing Michael Fassbender, who was originally cast in the role[3]), a depressed vampire hiding out in the ruins of old Detroit, his deteriorating environment reflecting the long, slow inner death he’s experiencing; a creeping funk of despair gradually consuming him from the inside out.   Adam is a world-weary genius; a brilliant musician and scientist who has managed to see his contributions to the arts and sciences appropriated by and disseminated through various mortals who have taken credit over the centuries for his own work.  Although he hoped the rest of us would catch up with him eventually, he’s now facing the crushing realization that we “zombies” (how vampires refer to mortal humans in Jarmusch’s film[4]) are only cannibalizing the world around us along with each other, rejecting the best that humanity has to offer in favour of our darker impulses.  And he’s sick and tired of it.

Fortunately, Adam is not alone—he has a devoted and loving wife (Tilda Swinton) named Eve (Har Har) who has a more balanced approach to enjoying life in spite of the misery it offers.  She balances out Adam’s depression quite nicely—he sees the worst of the world, but Eve sees the best it has to offer.  It’s this very real and tangible relationship between this couple that provides the heart and soul of Jarmusch’s film.  As its title would indicate, Only Lovers Left Alive is a very romantic movie.  There’s something especially optimistic in a story about two lovers who remain hopelessly devoted to each other for centuries—especially in a culture where divorce has long been the new normal (after a handful of years, no less—Adam and Eve have been married for hundreds of years!).  To say that Swinton and Hiddleston elevate the material would be a disservice to this terrific script—better to say that they are perfect for the story Jarmusch is telling.  This isn’t the sappy dime-store pap of Stephenie Meyer, or even the heavy melodrama of Anne Rice—this is the very real, very down-to-earth, sometimes even brutal romance of two people who love each other intimately and recklessly.  Thanks to this compelling relationship, Lovers Left Alive doesn’t need a lot of plot—it’s enough to just be a part of Adam and Eve’s world for a couple of hours.  It doesn’t matter if they’re playing chess, discussing philosophy, touring old Detroit in Adam’s classic muscle car, or sharing frozen blood popsicles—thanks to the trio of Jarmusch, Swinton, and Hiddleston, it’s a joy to share the room with them.

Writer-Director Jim Jarmusch

Writer-Director Jim Jarmusch

Even as a first-time viewer of Jarmusch, I get the impression, based not only on this film but on the research I did in preparation for writing this review, that he puts a lot of himself into his films, and I can’t imagine that this is any different.  Adam in particular has a lot in common with Jarmusch, I think—both are frustrated artists whose first love is music; both are impossibly cool yet tragically melancholy quasi-hipster types—even Adam’s suicidal tendencies are a reflection of the angry nihilism Jarmusch felt in his youth—the artist too beautiful for the world that holds him down.

That all sounds insufferable, and in a lesser film perhaps it would be.  But in the capable hands of an old pro like Jim Jarmusch it’s almost transcendent.  Rather than getting hung up on the surface trappings as a more hacky filmmaker might, Jarmusch moves beyond the surface aesthetic and finds the pulsing heart underneath, giving this movie a bleeding soul that resonates long after the final credit has rolled.

[1] While much of the film takes place in Detroit, sections of the movie take place in Algiers as well.

[2] The soundtrack also features terrific and haunting contributions from vocalists Madeline Follin (of the band Cults), Zola Jesus, and Yasmine Hamdan.

[3] Having seen the film, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else as Adam.  Michael Fassbender is one of my favourite actors bar none, but Hiddleston’s Jim Morrison-esque frame and bearing paired to his beta-male poetic soul make him so much better for the role.

[4] It’s a delightful irony that vampires, characterized in myth and legend as “undead,” would consider living, breathing human beings to be the true “living dead.”