Jim Jarmusch sticks with the most current version of the vampire myth for Only Lovers Left Alive, his story of a vampire couple reuniting in the ruins of Detroit after years of amicable estrangement. Little is changed from the current popular image of vampires as angst-ridden erudite snobs suffering the boredom of immortality. Thanks to a deft mixture of his trademark deadpan humor and classic hipness embodied by a handful of reputably cool actors imbued with the musty decadence traditionally associated with vampires, Jarmusch has crafted a stylish, slow burning romance, one that relies very little on genre conventions. Instead it grapples hypnotically with the personal costs of suspended animation: the mediocrity of a long existence, the curse of long hindsight, and the difficulty of bearing witness to the repeated cycle of human folly without being able to change a thing.
Tom Hiddleston’s Adam feels each of these acutely, and Detroit is a fitting home for his boundless pessimism, the miles of sweating orange-lit asphalt being both his muse and his greatest enemy all at once. He’s portrayed as the timeless hipster, a struggling musician who disdains his growing underground fanbase, refusing to acknowledge ordinary humans as anything other than talentless “zombies.” He may not appear it, but he’s an industrial-minded guy depressed by what he perceives to be humanity’s fear of progress, bemoaning the suppression of technological and cultural icons like Nikola Tesla. Eve is the reverse side of the coin, a patroness who looks fondly on the things humans have been able to achieve, ignoring Adam’s ambitious politics by choosing to engage with the world in a more personal way, exemplified by her close friendship with a particular elderly undead playwright. Via a vague, underplayed coincidence, the two are brought together, Eve traveling to Detroit to check up on her husband of one and a half centuries.
For anyone patient and willing enough to entertain a movie as culturally snobbish as its protagonists will find something enjoy, mostly thanks to the interactions between a small troupe of actors who have distinguished themselves individually elsewhere, but whose presence together no one could have guessed they needed until they’ve seen it. Mia Wasikowska’s appearance is disappointingly brief, especially since this is the liveliest she has ever been onscreen, but that’s all it takes for her to turn things upside down. Hiddleston’s scenes with a Sebastian Bach-like Anton Yelchin, fawning over a half dozen collectible guitars, or his awkward appointments with a sarcastic pathologist played by Jeffery Wright are amusing enough to distract from the fact that the plot doesn’t really go anywhere, which is just fine the more one realizes that Adam and Eve’s lives haven’t been moving forward, just spectating and indulging in their own hobbies. They’re surrounded by the gathered moss of their own intellectual inquiry, and Jarmusch along with his set designers relish the chance to soak in their surroundings.
Following closely behind Neil Jordan’s Byzantium, Only Lovers Left Alive signals the continuation of a trend in ornate, small-scale dramas that unveil the frailty of their vampire characters, showing them to be more human than they are vampire. At least a couple times the camera goes dead-eyed in front of an expressionless Hiddleston for too long, but Jarmusch pops right back with a line as fabulous as “It goes to show we don’t know shit about fungi.” Thanks to a certain franchise that need not go named, such vampire dramas may be met with suspicion, but in the hands of a stylist like Jarmusch, there is nothing hackneyed in the direction, writing, or performances. Instead his interiors are gorgeous, his exteriors perfectly noir-ish to complement the vampires’ occasional midnight ramblings. Hiddleston’s and Swinton’s spindly grace add immensely to the woozy atmosphere proffered by Jarmusch, and all three are able to find genuine affection in what comes off as a very lived-in, secrets-free relationship. Down to the last second, Adam and Eve are shown to subscribe to Jarmusch’s mournful brand of enduring love, knowing that in the end, all they or anyone else have left is the solace of their own intimacy against the wider world.