2014, Jim Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch has always been a filmmaker walking a fine line between appropriately measured and frustratingly dull. His films take their time, neither asking for attention nor waiting for approval from the audience to see if they’re along for the ride or not. For over three decades now he has been a man existing very much in his own space, never following in the footsteps of many independent directors who shift into more elaborate, high-budget affair and while he jumps from dramas diverse as westerns and modern samurai gangster tales he has always remained distinctly himself. No one can watch a Jim Jarmusch movie and mistake it for anything other than his own. So when he announced that his newest picture, Only Lovers Left Alive, would feature Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as vampires in the present day (or some version of it), there was no doubt that this wouldn’t be another tired retread of the vampire craze that we’ve seen take over both television and film in the past decade.
No, Only Lovers Left Alive is from the opening moments unquestionably a Jarmusch picture first and foremost, as all of his works are but for me this was the rare piece from the director that never transcended past that disassociated indifference to transfix me the way his other works have. In fact, through his entire filmography it’s strange to say that the only pictures that haven’t worked for me on some level are his two most recent, the other being the Euro-tinged assassin flick The Limits of Control. Only Lovers Left Alive features all of the staples present in his work; a kicking soundtrack which features even more prominently thanks to the musical inclination of Hiddleston’s Adam; a perfectly suited cast that places talent like Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Anton Yelchin and Jeffrey Wright (underused but makes the most of his small role) alongside the two leads; a laconic, measured approach that sits quietly rather than leaping up to take the viewer by the hand and guide them through the world. Only Lovers Left Alive is a patient movie but it was one that never ended up in a place that I felt rewarded the journey I took with it.
There’s a stretch in the middle once Wasikowska’s character is introduced, the sister of Swinton’s Eve who has come to Detroit to reunite with her longtime lover Adam who is suicidal for what seems like the dozenth time across his long life, where the film really livens up and keeps the energy going until she makes her exit but unfortunately that was the only period where I felt myself engaged in what was happening on screen. Wasikowska is consistently delivering as an actress in recent years, making her way through the works of auteurs like Cary Fukunaga, Chan-wook Park and David Cronenberg with breathless ease, traversing whatever genre as if she’d been living these characters her entire life and there’s a playfulness to her work here that we haven’t seen from her before. After seeing her take on such a quietly devilish character in Park’s Stoker (not a vampire film, despite the teasing title) last year it was a genuine treat to see her come out with a more infantile and energetic ball of chaos with her work as Ava here. Not only that, but having her come into this dreary, seemingly endless world of melancholy gave everyone around her the needed spark for a picture that was actually engaging to watch. Hiddleston’s dry delivery became a comedic treat when bounced against Wasikowska’s youthfulness and Swinton was right there for the ride playing both sides of the equation.
Yet unfortunately it would come that Ava leaves as furiously as she enters and the picture returns to that place of tediousness it previously existed in as if it hadn’t missed a beat. To be fair, there’s a point to the monotony in Jarmusch’s approach and I don’t think this picture was anything other than what he intended it to be. Adam’s suicidal nature comes from a sense of boredom with the way the world has become, a place so endlessly routine and repetitive, that anyone would feel after living in it for centuries. I felt as though Only Lovers Left Alive is one of the few true depictions of what life would actually be like in the modern age for a vampire who had lived as long as someone like Adam or Eve had been kicking around. Surely this was Jarmusch’s intention and the actors pulled it off in convincing form but there’s a way to make boring, muted lives engaging to watch and it didn’t accomplish that for me. Jarmusch has always been an interesting filmmaker in the way that his work really does walk right on that line between boring you to tears or absorbing you completely, as if a flick of a switch can change your opinion on one of his films entirely, and I’m almost always on the side of those passionately in his corner but Only Lovers Left Alive is a rare time that I just couldn’t invest in the work no matter how much I wanted to.