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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Review: Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston

It seems only natural that it would take a Jim Jarmusch to make vampires seem even remotely cool again. Almost a decade after the Twilight series made vampires the go-to means of channeling the danger of teenage sexuality into a safer, schmoopier form of romanticism, and helped make vampires so ubiquitous in pop culture that any allure was slowly leached out of them, Only Lovers Left Alive comes along to show that it's possible to return the luster to our favorite breed of brooding fiends. Starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as a pair of vampires who have lived for centuries as observers and spent that time collecting knowledge and art while lamenting the ways that human beings don't quite appreciate what they have, Only Lovers has more in common with Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire than with most other vampire movies, and exists on atmosphere more than on plot (though a plot finds it eventually). But what a beautiful, dreamy, hypnotic atmosphere it is.

As the film opens, Adam (Hiddleston), is living in Detroit, surrounded by the instruments (mostly guitars) and recording equipment he's been collecting for who knows how long. He spends his nights making and recording music, a recluse whose only visitor is Ian (Anton Yelchin), a young man who hunts down vintage and rare instruments to sell to Adam and who worships him with unquestioning devotion. Every once in a while Adam leaves his dilapidated house in a long deserted neighborhood and treks out to a nearby hospital, where he has a standing arrangement with Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright) to supply him with blood. Meanwhile, in Tangier, Eve (Swinton) lives surrounded by books, her need for blood supplied by the connections of fellow vampire Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt). Though they live in different parts of the world, Adam and Eve remain emotionally tied to each other, and when she senses that his melancholy is about to take a dangerous turn (he does, in fact, commission a special bullet from Ian), she makes her way to Detroit in an effort to pull him out of his downward spiral. Things go well, at first, but then each of them has a dream about Eve's sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), which turns out to be a premonition of her arrival and, with her, chaos.

Ava's arrival marks a shift in the film. Whereas the opening section unfolds in a casual, somewhat ambling way, it now has a feeling of moving definitively towards something, as if the story has solidified. Ava is a force who runs somewhat amok through Adam's house, gorging herself on the blood supply, inviting herself to play his instruments and records, and generally causing trouble. Eve reacts to her with an almost maternal indulgence, letting her have her way in most instances but trying to confine her fun within certain limits, while Adam endures, rather than tolerates, her presence until she does something so outrageous that even Eve can't defend her. In Ava's wake, Adam and Eve are left with a mess in need of cleaning up and decisions that need to be made quickly for the sake of their own survival. However, even if they do solve this problem, a long gestating problem may render everything else moot: over time humans have been contaminating their blood, rendering it unusable for vampire consumption.

Only Lovers Left Alive is an unhurried film which takes its time getting to the story so that it can luxuriate in its characters and setting. That's a wise decision when both are as well-realized and utilized as they are here. While Swinton's Eve is possessed of the sort of unearthly calm of someone who has experienced much and figured it all out long ago, Hiddleston's Adam is like a burlesque of the archetypal moody rock star who hates nothing more than the adulation his music has inspired. Both performances are great, but of course at this point you expect greatness from Swinton, who is utterly perfect for this kind of role. Hiddleston, though, is something of a revelation, giving a performance that manages to be in on the joke about Adam (this is most notable in the exaggerated, teenage girl-ish eye rolling he indulges in once Ava hits the scene) without letting Adam be in on the joke about Adam. Moreover, he completely holds his own with Swinton, and the two have the sort of lived-in, comfortable chemistry that sells the relationship between their characters, for whom even physical distance cannot lessen the strength of their bond. The film could have been nothing more than the two of them cruising through Detroit talking and I suspect that it still would have been a good film.

There's a lot that I loved about Only Lovers Left Alive, particularly Jarmusch's evocative use of Detroit as the setting. As Adam and Eve drive through empty streets and wander around in ruined buildings, the setting begins to seem like a vampire itself, an undead city that lingers on earth and has an uneasy relationship with the living. This perfect marriage of place to story, supported by what may well turn out to be the best soundtrack of 2014, sets the tone marvelously and lulls the viewer into the drifty first half of the film before Ava shows up and blows everything apart. The only real criticism that I have of the film is that the writing is sometimes a bit labored, as if Jarmusch doesn't quite trust the audience to get some of the jokes and references and so underlines them through repetition and dialogue that all but points to them with neon signs. I'm thinking, in particular, of the fact that the film goes out of its way multiple times to let the audience know that the Christopher Marlowe character is that Christopher Marlowe and that he was responsible for all the works attributed to Shakespeare, and to the fact that when Adam goes to pick up blood at the hospital he uses the alias Dr. Faust, which is funny the first time but far less so the second. Ultimately, though, that's only a little problem and Only Lovers Left Alive is, overall, a brilliantly executed vision.

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