REVIEW: “Only Lovers Left Alive”

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Several years ago vampires became all the rage in modern pop culture. “Twilight” made millions from novels and movies. “True Blood” was a hugely popular television series. And while I can’t say many flattering things about the quality of these properties, fans could get their vampire entertainment fix almost anywhere. Now, as the vampire craze appears to be fading, writer and director Jim Jarmusch gives us a vampire tale that is boldly unique and intelligently metaphoric. It would also send Twilight fans running for the exits.

“Only Lovers Left Alive” could be described as a mood piece. Like other Jarmusch films, this is more centered around developing characters than developing plot and your enjoyment of the movie will probably depend on how much you enjoy being with these people. As you can guess the two main characters are vampires, but part of the film’s genius is how it uses vampire concepts while stiff-arming the usual tropes and gimmicks. In fact it seems like calling it a ‘vampire movie’ is actually doing it a huge disservice.

At the core of the film lies the love story of a centuries old vampiric couple. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a recluse living in an old two-story Victorian on the abandoned outskirts of Detroit. He surrounds himself with out-of-date electronic gadgets and his music. His wife Eve (Tilda Swinton) lives in Tangier, Morocco where she spends most of her time enjoying books and literature. The two are very different. Adam has grown forlorn and sour due to the current state of the world. Eve is more playful and optimistic, choosing to embrace hope and happiness. Yet despite these differences the two soulmates deeply love each other.

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Sensing Adam’s depression Eve travels to Detroit where the two are reunited. From there the film opens up the characters and their relationship by simply following along with them. We listen to their conversations which range from scientific theory to makes and models of classic guitars. We listen to Adam lament the death of creativity at the hands of humans (who the couple call zombies). We listen to Eve remind him of the great artists and innovators they have known through the centuries. These are fascinating individuals who have a number of fascinating discussions, but they all aim to serve the movie’s greater points.

In many ways “Only Lovers Left Alive” is an indictment of humanity, or at the very least a call for introspection. We hear how humanity’s appreciation for the arts has declined. In fact, in what may be Jarmusch’s jab at modern moviemaking, we hear Los Angeles refered to as “zombie central”. We see how humanity has destroyed what it has created as evident by the hollow and empty Detroit landscapes. We learn about humanity’s destruction of the environment particularly through a couple of references to the scarcity of clean water. Humanity has even destroyed themselves. Vampires are forced to seek alternate methods of acquiring blood because humans have poisoned their own. None of these things ever get to the point of being preachy. Instead they are thoughtful story components that are clever and thought-provoking.

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The film also has a smart sense of humor which shows itself most when the vampires are relating to the past. For example Eve reminding Adam of his time spent playing chess with Lord Byron or sharing creative ideas with composer Franz Schubert. Then there are several gags tied to John Hurt’s character. He plays Eve’s dear friend and fellow vampire Christopher Marlowe – yes, the 16th century playwright. Some fun is had with the conspiracy theory that he wrote many important pieces of literature under the assumed name of William Shakespeare.

It also helps that Jarmusch cast the two best possible people for the parts of Adam and Eve. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are so intensely convincing both in their intelligent coolness and blanched physical appearances. You never doubt them as connoisseurs of fine art and music, and you never doubt their vampire status. They are two of the most compelling and strangely attractive characters I’ve seen this year. I loved spending time with them.

“Only Lovers Left Alive” can be called a vampire movie, but in reality it bucks nearly every common vampire trend. It’s a slick, stylish, and moody character piece that doesn’t shy away from asking good questions and prodding reflection. It’s also great fun watching a true independent director like Jarmusch work with top talents like Hiddleston and Swinton. This certainly won’t be up everyone’s alley, but I found it to be mesmerizing entertainment and a refreshing jolt to the 2014 movie year.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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26 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Only Lovers Left Alive”

  1. Yes, it’s deeply metaphoric and contemplative. Unfortunately, I found it to be deeply boring. It was two solid hours of listening to a stuffy intellectual pontificate on how great everything used to be while his wife just says “Tell me more, darling.” This is coming from a guy who has been accused of being a stuffy intellectual, mind you. Having something to say is great, but to me at least, it didn’t say it in a way that was even remotely interesting.

    • Interesting perspective on it and I certainly respect it. I guess I saw a lot more to Swinton’s Eve. I found her to be more optimistic and constantly reminding him of the good humanity has done and the hope that things will get better. I liked the contrast between their perspectives.

      I also loved the way the movie plays with vampire cliches while never fully indulging them. I also liked the vampire’s vulnerability as well as the dry humor about their pasts. I guess it all worked for me. That said I can see where it would divide audiences.

  2. Great review and I’m so glad you liked this movie! The atmosphere was so fantastic, exactly the kind of mood the movie about vampires should have.

    • Thanks Sati! And wasn’t it cool how the film bucked a lot of the overused vampire nonsense that we usually get? It such a moody piece but it’s also intelligent in how it draws us to reflect on a number of things.

  3. I think vampire has always been a popular subgenre in Hollywood, Twilight just dumbs it down! I’m looking forward to this, I like it when a filmmaker can make a twist of the genre and making something totally unexpected like this. Plus the pairing of Swinton & Hiddles are definitely intriguing!

    • It’s sooo good Ruth and it’s very unique. I think Jarmusch’s style and dedication to character over plot turns some people off. I was connected all the way. Really interested to hear you thoughts.

      Oh, and as you know, Swinton and Hiddleston are incredible. Perfectly cast!

  4. Good review Keith. It surprised me. Not just because it was a Jim Jarmusch movie I actually liked, but because it gave me two vampire characters to actually care about.

    • I think you’re right. It is slow but intentionally slow. Jarmusch has never been about plot as much as character. Personally I wouldn’t have loved to spend even more time with these two listening to them talk about their histories and philosophies. I genuinely found them intriguing. And what great performances, right?

  5. Mesmerizing is right. This movie was simply sublime, the first half in particular, which could’ve gone on for forever and would’ve never grown boring or uninteresting. Fantastic movie, and one of the best I’ve seen this year. Nice review. 🙂

    • I had the exact same reaction and just like you I could have spent so much more time with the two main characters. For me this film was intelligent, funny, cool, and captivating. I don’t mean to pile up so many adjectives but it’s hard not to when talking about my feelings for this movie. Really good to hear from someone who shares my enthusiasm.

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