Tuesday, April 22, 2014

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE Is a Vampire Movie You Can Sink Your Teeth Into


- A Jim Jarmusch-directed vampire movie? Not something I ever expected to see ... which is exactly what makes this one such a unique and fascinating film. It is about vampires, yes, but it's still unmistakably Jarmusch. That means long, lingering shots, a methodical and hypnotic pace, and a slice-of-life perspective that's less about plot, and more about simply immersing us in the world of these characters. A slice-of-life vampire flick - have we ever seen *that* before? ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE is like Before Sunrise, if the title was taken to mean something only slightly different. This is a film centered around conversation, observation, and little moments that add up to something that is, ultimately, pretty mesmerizing. It probably shouldn't work ... but with some self-aware humor, an absolutely fantastic cast, and a dark rock n' roll vibe that sucks you in and never loses its groove, this feels like a definitive take on vampires - taking its place in the cannon of all-time-great bloodsucker movies.

I'm guessing a lot of people will be curious about this one due to its leading-man turn from perpetual Marvel movie badguy Tom Hiddleston. I'm a fan of Hiddleston's great work as Loki in Thor and The Avengers, but his work here cemented him, to me, as a 100% real-deal movie star. He pretty much just owns every frame that he appears in, turning in a transfixing, commanding, morbidly funny performance as reclusive vampire rock-star Adam. Again, what makes the character work so well is that even though Adam is dark and brooding, Hiddleston plays him with a slight wink, allowing the film to sort of have fun with Adam's relentless gloominess. I will also add to the chorus of people who, after seeing this film, came away convinced that Hiddleston might just need to play the lead in the eventual Sandman movie, as his character here seems like a definite riff on Neil Gaiman's Morpheus (and in fact, there's a very heavy Sandman vibe to the entire film). Much like The Sandman, Adam has been around for centuries - often in the company of great artists and inventors, from Byron to Tesla. Adam laments the state of the modern world - living in Detroit, content to be an undead creature in a dying city. He spends his nights working on music, which he records and releases anonymously. His isolated house is filled with old books, old instruments, old machinery - that he jury-rigs to power his home, allowing him to stay off the grid. He has an arrangement with a doctor at a local hospital, whom he pays in exchange for regular vials of blood, without which he'd starve.

Adam is married to Eve (clearly, no subtlety in Jarmusch's character names), played in similarly gripping fashion by Tilda Swindon. Eve is much older than Adam, but still seems to find wonder in the world, whereas he tends to wallow in misery. When the movie starts, Eve is spending time in Tangier, hanging out with her friend and fellow vamp Marlowe (John Hurt). However, when Eve decides to go to Detroit to be with her husband again, she has to contend with an Adam who seems all but defeated by the burden of his immortality. What's interesting is how Eve again inspires Adam to look at the world with fresh eyes, and how the bond between the two continues to flourish even as time marches on.

The heart of the film lies in the small scenes between Adam and Eve. As the two visit old haunts, discuss politics, music, and art, and just generally hang out, there's a great back-and-forth rhythm to their dialogue. This isn't rapid-fire banter, but instead a sort of stark, hypnotic shorthand between two (very) old friends. As the film goes on, there's no explosive plot development that suddenly changes everything, but instead, a series of seemingly small events that all seem to portend a shift in the long lives of these two characters. The first major disruption is the arrival of Eve's wild-child sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), whose erratic behavior quickly screws up Adam's carefully-constructed life. Things continue to spiral from there, and soon Adam is forced to make some major decisions about his future.

The movie doesn't have a large cast, but aside from Hiddleston and Swindon (like I said, both phenomenal), the film is filled out by top-notch supporting players. Wasikowska is playing very against-type as Ava, but she absolutely nails the sort of walking-embodiment-of-chaos that the character represents. John Hurt is excellent as the aged vampire Marlowe - who, we learn, was in fact the brains behind Shakespeare's works, but who, like Adam, had to toil in anonymity so as not to reveal his true nature. Anton Yelchin is unrecognizable - but quite good and very amusing - as Ian, a stoned-out rocker who makes a living as Adam's assistant, paid to keep mum about his boss' secret life. Finally, Jeffrey Wright makes the most of his few scenes as Adam's blood-providing associate, a nervous doctor who can only sort of shake his head in bemusement at the insane situation he's found himself in.

The movie's visuals are constantly striking. Jarmusch's camera moves deliberately through the dark ruins of Detroit, as well as through the narrow, ancient corridors of Tangier. Both cities reflect on our main characters: Detroit lies in apocalyptic ruin, a dead city, like our dead vampires. Tangier is old and timeless - it too, reflects an aspect of Adam and Eve. Jarmusch's visuals, matched with the film's droning goth-rock score, often create a sort of hypnosis. In a way, ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE is just one big drug movie - except here, the drug isn't booze, or heroin, or cocaine ... but blood. Much of the movie is about the need to feed - and Jarmusch takes us down the proverbial rabbit hole as Adam, Eve, and Ava fight and indulge their compulsive urges. Stylistically, the movie is almost a throwback in some ways. I suppose its whole gothy aesthetic comes off as very 90's - certainly a flashback of sorts to the decade of The Sandman, The Crow, Kurt Cobain, Nine Inch Nails, and Marilyn Manson. But hey, if that particular aesthetic floats your boat, you'll be in goth heaven. The movie is replete with pale-faced, English-accented rock n' roll vampires hanging out in dank clubs and brooding to the sounds of industrial guitar chords. It's like Jarmusch is on one big nostalgia kick for the pre-Twilight days when vampires were portrayed as punk-rock misfits as opposed to sparkly teen idols. Again, it would all be sort of funny, except the movie fully acknowledges the inherent absurdity of all of this.

For all of its sly nods and self-aware winks, however, I came away struck by just how oddly profound the movie ultimately is. This is a film that is relatively small in scale, but that has a ton to say about the human condition and the world we live in. While the film might seem ambling at times, it really comes together in the end in a way that brings everything full-circle. This is a movie about finding art and beauty and love in an often bleak and dark world, and about recognizing and embracing the rays of light that shine through in the darkness. The vampires in ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE have seen a lot of bad stuff go down through the years, and their very blood-sucking existence is one of violence and addiction. And yet, they are sort of like the world's oldest cultural critics - appearing in the various corners of the world and seeking out the great thinkers, the great musicians, and the great innovators of various ages. Guess immortality has its perks.

And so, the film becomes an unlikely source of inspiration - an ode to art and music and literature and appreciating all of the things that humans are capable of. The vampires in the film condescendingly refer to humans as "zombies," (they are, after all, the walking dead ...), but they also can't help but be drawn to the exceptional people and things in the world - past and present. Jarmusch's film is knowingly over-the-top at times, slyly funny, clever, and darkly hypnotic. It's a thought-provoking, captivating walk on the wild side.

My Grade: A-

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