Editor’s note: Our review of Only Lovers Left Alive originally ran during this year’s SXSW, but we’re re-posting it as the film opens theatrically.
Director Jim Jarmusch‘s (Broken Flowers, Dead Man) films have never been for everyone. They’re experimental in a variety of ways, but, for good or bad, they are always Jim Jarmusch films. However, sometimes too much Jarmuschiness can agitate even his own fans. His last film, The Limits of Control, never shied away from testing its audience’s patience in part because its awareness of itself was far too often distancing. That’s not the case with his latest film, Only Lovers Left Alive, a movie that maintains its focus, emotional investment, and laughs from start to finish.
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) have been lovers for hundreds of years. They’re true romantics, but they are on opposite sides of the world. Eve is living in Tangier, while Adam is in the rotting city of Detroit. Time is relative when you’re immortal, but still, it’s not easy for them. The distance becomes an issue when Adam, a shy goth rockstar, is feeling more lost than usual without her. She immediately packs her favorite novels, books a flight, and comes to Adam’s side. It should be mentioned that they’re also vampires, which explains why they’ve been alive for so long.
Them being vampires is secondary to Only Lovers Left Alive. They’re lovers first, vampires second. More than anything, they’re a pair of hippies. When they drink blood, Jarmusch shoots it like they’re on the greatest high of their lives: the up close and personal camerawork, the peaceful music, and their gleeful faces. Blood is just their drug to get by. Vampires have often served as a metaphor for serious addictions, but Jarmusch does it in a refreshingly fun way. They’re not dangerous junkies, they just need to get a high every now and then.
This isn’t a vampire movie where they grow hungry and need to go on a killing spree. It’s obvious that’s what Jarmusch is the least interested in. Any bites or killings that take place in the movie are done off-screen. It wouldn’t fit the vibe of the movie to show them, in part because watching Adam and Eve by each other’s side is more fulfilling than it would be to see them kill. They’re an instantly lovable couple. Only Lovers Left Alive is a genuinely romantic movie. Despite its hilariously straight faced sense of humor, the film has zero irony over Adam and Eve’s relationship. Jarmusch doesn’t even try to force any redundant drama between the two of them. Their only issue is their need for blood and Eve’s sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska). She invites herself to stay at Adam’s home in Detroit, and despite his disdain for her he allows her to stay. She causes a few problems for the couple while visiting the film’s perfect backdrop.
It’s striking to see Adam and Eve, two characters who will live forever, in a city that’s been crumbling for a long time. Jarmusch captures the bleakness of Detroit with a surprising amount of beauty. Seeing them drive through the streets of the city at night heightens the movie’s already immersive and darkly-lit mood. The empty streets and houses feel right for two characters trying to avoid humans, or, as Adam calls them, “zombies”.
Only Lovers Left Alive is a gorgeous movie. From the opening shot to the last, everything is precise, atmospheric, and as intoxicating as Adam’s music. When it’s played, it has a transcendent effect similar to Jarmusch’s own film. Even Jarmusch’s detractors should be swept away by this moody romance full of heart, laughs, and style.
The Upside: Two terrific performances from Hiddleston and Swinton; the use of Detroit; evocative but simple cinematography and camerawork; Jozef van Wissem‘s unforgettable score
The Downside: Nothing
On The Side: Michael Fassbender was considered for the role of Adam.