Combustible Celluloid
Stream it:
Download at i-tunes iTunes
Own it:
Get the Poster
Search for streaming:
NetflixHuluGoogle PlayGooglePlayCan I
With: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Anton Yelchin, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Jeffrey Wright, Slimane Dazi, Carter Logan, Yasmine Hamdan
Written by: Jim Jarmusch
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
MPAA Rating: R for language and brief nudity
Running Time: 123
Date: 04/11/2014

Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)

3 Stars (out of 4)

In Told Blood

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In my book, Jim Jarmusch can be ranked among the greatest living filmmakers. He has only made eleven feature films in a career of 30 years, but he has always worked independently and always remained true to his vision. Regardless of how they work as a whole, not one of those films has one moment that rings false or feels impersonal.

Jarmusch's new film Only Lovers Left Alive is no exception. It's quite good, it sticks in the memory, and there's very little out there that I would trade it for. But I don't think it's quite a masterpiece, and I'd hesitate to call it one of my favorites.

If I were to rank my favorites, I think the anthology film Coffee and Cigarettes (2004) would come out near the bottom. The reason for this is that it's based mainly on talking. Jarmusch has certainly written some great dialogue in his time, but when I look at my favorites of his, Stranger than Paradise (1984), Dead Man (1996), Ghost Dog (1999), and Broken Flowers (2005), I think of so many passages of quiet, or of things unsaid. I suspect that these moments are Jarmusch's strength, or at least it's what I like best about him.

Only Lovers Left Alive is another film based mainly around talking. It also happens to be a vampire film, which undoubtedly helped get it financed, though Jarmusch isn't interested in the aspects of the genre that made Twilight such a success. It focuses on two vampires, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton). Adam lives in a crumbling mansion in burned-out Detroit, tinkering with electricity and electronics, making music and hiding from rock fans. He has a guy -- Ian (Anton Yelchin) -- who gets him things, ranging from rare guitars to a special wooden bullet, which might soon end Adam's unending sadness.

Eve, meanwhile, lives in the equally run-down Tangier, in Morocco. She phones him and they realize how much they miss each other. Apparently they have been lovers for some time, at least a century or more, and haven't seen each other in a little while (a couple of years maybe?). Eve agrees to travel to Detroit, which involves booking two night flights and resting indoors for a day. She says goodbye to her pal Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), the legendary playwright behind Dr. Faustus. In this movie, Marlowe is also a vampire; moreover, he reveals that he was also the author of Shakespeare's plays.

(I'm not sure if Jarmusch actually subscribes to this theory, which is a bit older and makes a bit less sense than the more recent "Earl of Oxford" theory, dramatized in the film Anonymous.)

In any case, Eve arrives and the lovers have a warm reunion, talking, making love, listening to music and going for a drive in the deserted Detroit streets. "That's Jack White's house," Adam points out as a highlight of one of their drives. (Jack White appeared in Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes, by the way.)

Before long, Eve's petulant sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) shows up, having warned them all of her arrival through a carefully-placed nightmare. She's pouty and spoiled and insists on getting her way, no matter the consequences. This results in a disaster that requires Adam and Eve to relocate, a dangerous prospect.

Jeffrey Wright -- who gave a superb performance in Broken Flowers -- has a couple of jokey scenes as a doctor who provides Adam with blood in exchange for wads of cash. He keeps referring to Adam by famous creepy movie titles, i.e. "anything else, Dr. Caligari?"

Jarmusch depicts a few key visual moments, such as the little rituals that three vampires, Marlowe, Adam and Eve, have just before they drink their nightly sustenance. And I really liked the relationship between Adam and the gofer Ian; they seem to genuinely like one another, and can actually carry on a relaxed conversation about guitars, even though their relationship is very much one of master and servant.

But for the most part, the movie seems to be a vehicle for Jarmusch to talk about some of his most passionate subjects, including, but not limited to, Jack White, Nikola Tesla (also referred to in Coffee and Cigarettes), Marlowe and Shakespeare, unsung genius in general, the state of music today, the state of the economy today, the state of automobile manufacturing today, etc. Adam even keeps a wall of photographic portraits, presumably heroes of his, but more likely heroes of Jarmusch's, including Rodney Dangerfield, William S. Burroughs, Billie Holiday, and the cinematographer Robby Muller, who shot Jarmusch's Dead Man.

I wouldn't have minded this at all if these tidbits had come from the characters, but they seem to be making only a brief stopover there, clearly issuing from Jarmusch himself. The characters are mouthpieces. If not for the supreme talents of Hiddleston and Swinton -- surely two of today's most fascinating actors -- the characters might not have registered at all.

Really I suppose Only Lovers Left Alive is the equivalent of a message movie, except that instead of some filmmaker raging about immigration or war or disease or politics, Jarmusch is giving us a barstool compendium of all the things he's been privately concerned about over the past few years. It's a tough call, because I would consider Jarmusch's concerns a great deal more interesting than some run-of-the-mill director with one eye on the Oscars. But for me it all comes down to a matter of the emotional presentation of the ideas, and the emotion here just isn't strong enough.

It grieves me to write this about one of my most adored filmmakers, but I suspect that this movie will be more warmly received than his previous one, The Limits of Control, and hopefully that will result in quicker and more accessible funding for future films. Please keep going, Mr. Jarmusch. Give us whatever you've got.

The DVD release, from Sony Pictures Classics, comes with a 49-minute featurette, "Traveling at Night with Jim Jarmusch," which is as cool as you might hope from a Jarmusch DVD; it's very observant, without any of the usual studio-controlled junk. There's also a music video for the haunting song by the beautiful Yasmine Hamdan, 26 minutes of deleted and extended scenes, and trailers for this and other Sony releases.

Movies Unlimtied