Only Lovers Left Alive is a romantic drama involving vampires. Yep, that’s the elevator pitch, and no, it couldn’t sound more like Twilight. Ugh.
But put aside those preconceptions, if you are able. First, in its corner are the talents of Tilda Swinton (The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion the Witch, and the Wardrobe) and Tom Hiddleston (Loki in Thor and The Avengers) in the film’s two leading roles. Second, the film makes a point of dealing with “zombies” – aka humans – as little as possible. So there’s no one to whine about wanting to be a vampire.
The story finds Hiddleston and Swinton as a centuries-old vampire couple named Adam and Eve (and yes, when they’re first named it’s as hokey as it sounds, but thankfully recedes into just being part of the story). Adam and Eve begin the movie living in Detroit and Tangiers, respectfully. Adam is a brilliant, reclusive musician who enlists the regular support of a human, Ian (played by Anton Yelchin) to procure rare instruments and other items of interest. Eve soon journeys to Detroit to reunite with Adam. They are married, after all, but when you live for hundreds of years it would seem that living apart for a while is roughly akin to a business trip.
One of the great pleasures of the movie is simply watching Adam and Eve be together. They are intimately familiar with one another, and have a running set of rituals co-opted from their centuries together and the cultures they’ve witnessed. With Eve dressed all in white (even her hair) and Adam all in black (even his hair), they remain distinct individuals, yet seem even visually to belong with one another, perfectly complimenting one another. As they reunite, it’s like seeing a couple on its honeymoon, though even more satisfying for the comfort they so clearly feel with one another. I don’t mean to suggest that the movie is pornographic; there’s plenty of suggestion of physical intimacy to match their emotional closeness, but the small bits that are actually shown on screen are tasteful and highly informative to their characters.
The quality of their scenes together (especially their scenes together rather than their scenes apart) has to be attributed to two key factors. One, the acting. Not a lot is asked from either Hiddleston or Swinton in terms of range, but they both turn in pitch-perfect performances. This is a pretty slow burning movie, and one without a lot of plot to drive it in any sort of definitive direction, so a lot hinges on the nuance of the characters. I particularly enjoyed Eve’s (Swinton’s) balance between matching Adam’s brooding nature and showcasing her own slightly more playful side.
Both Anton Yelchin and Mia Wasikowska deserve shout outs as well. I enjoyed Yelchin in Charlie Barlett and thought he outshined his own picture in Like Crazy, and he’s turning in more work of particular quality here, even in his limited role. Wasikowska likewise has limited screen time as Eve’s excitable-to-a-fault sister Ava, but she is a necessary shot of energy that works to draw out the other characters out of their carefully protected comfort zones.
Two, director Jim Jarmusch spent this movie IN. CHARGE. That doesn’t mean it’s a perfect film, but there’s barely a scene, a shot, a line that doesn’t feel intentional and cohesive. I wasn’t familiar with Jarmusch’s previous directorial work, but it’s something I’m going to have to seek out now. He’s clearly had a lot of fun playing with a lot of the tools at his disposal for this picture; the lighting and moody camerawork is sublime, and the soundtrack/sound design for the movie (Adam’s musical habits mean the two intersect a lot) fit really well.
So, why vampires? Rather than being a movie that adheres to genre tropes, this is a movie that’s smart enough to make use of genre tools. Any set of immortal characters could work in the film, but having them be vampires achieves several things. Vampires are popularly understood, their aversion to sunlight isolates the characters, and their need to drink blood ties them meaningfully to the fine line between life and death. The vampires here share in many aspects of human frailty and vulnerability, attaching their experience to the audience’s own, but they are allowed to deal with complex thematic questions, especially those regarding the meaning of existence, because of the characters’ breadth of experience. Particularly compelling is an exploration of a hierarchy of existence. There’s a spectrum, says the film, that runs from contemplating the necessities for continued existence (i.e. is there enough food/water/shelter for me to wake up alive tomorrow?) to contemplating the meaning of existence. This latter question is a lot easier to come at when the character asking it is 500 years old instead of 50 or fifteen.
Which is not to say that the movie arrives at a definitive point regarding any of it. To me, this was a strength more often than not – we get to touch on the similarities between science and art, for example, or the proper stewardship of nature, frequently in ways that interact with the broader questions about purpose in or the meaning of life – but I do think it’s likely to annoy some viewers. This is definitely a movie that asks you to roll with an atypical structure and enjoy the ride without caring too much about the destination. It does make a couple of pretty sharp turns, but for me, the overwhelming quality of the filmmaking meant I had no trouble abandoning myself to the story.
The Verdict: 4 out of 5
Don’t be scared off by the moniker “Vampire Romance.” Of the words which might describe Only Lovers Left Alive, “pulpy” is not one of them. A collection of stellar performances and some very confident direction allows a very slow movie to remain engaging. There are a few issues – the odd shot or line that feels out of place, and some sense that the film is progressing without any real end in sight – but these are superseded by the fact that this is a beautiful and moody picture that’s just enjoyable to watch and does tangentially explore some very meaningful ideas to boot.