Vampires are still everywhere, but when iconoclastic indie director Jim Jarmusch takes them on, you know you’re going to see an original take on the creatures, and he certainly delivers there. Jarmusch has little interest in most vampire lore, eschewing any familiar vampire story angles, he keeps the best aspects (immortality, blood, sunlight) but Only Lovers Left Alive is a drama that couldn’t be called a horror film by any stretch.
Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston play two ancient vampires called Adam and Eve. They’re a couple, and have been for quite some time, we never learn exactly how old they are but there are references to suggest many centuries. At the start, Eve is living in Tangier, where she acquires blood from another vampire, Marlowe (John Hurt), whose appearance suggests that these vampires may in fact age, but this is never elaborated upon. Adam is a recluse living in a derelict Detroit neighbourhood, composing weird rock music that he distributes anonymously. After a phone call, Eve agrees to come to Detroit and stay with Adam, while expressing the difficulty of travel for vampires; flights must arrive and depart at night.
Details like that seem to be Jarmusch’s main focus in Only Lovers Left Alive, the mundane aspects of still being alive and nocturnal after hundreds of years. The first half gives us lengthy scenes detailing how Adam goes about acquiring blood – purchasing it from a corrupt local doctor played by an underused Jeffrey Wright, and other items he needs from Ian (Anton Yelchin), a human who doesn’t know he’s a vampire and appears to be his only friend. There are a number of neat little ideas in these scenes, the way they look down upon humans (calling them ‘zombies’) for their repeated hindrance to social and scientific progress, and their viewing of drinking blood from someone’s neck not only as a barbaric thing of the past, but as a danger to them now as so many humans have diseased (‘poisoned’) blood. When they do feed, they need ‘the good stuff’, drunk out of small chalices. Jarmusch films them from above in slow motion, making a clear comparison to the taking of some wondrous drug, as the looks of ecstasy on their faces are augmented by the appearance of their blood-stained fangs.
Unfortunately, despite several clever touches, this examination of the dull cycles of vampire life does not make for a riveting viewing experience. Adam seems bored with life, and the audience may well feel bored along with him. Very little actually happens plot wise for the majority of the film, both Adam and Eve basically remain in the exact same condition throughout it, they are a couple, but this is not a ‘romance’. The only real hint of story comes with the appearance of Eve’s vibrant younger sister (Mia Wasikowska), who’s outgoing nature lies in sharp contrast to Adam and Eve’s. Her brief storyline however follows a very predictable path and soon she’s back out of the picture. There’s also something a bit off about Adam, he’s been a musician for hundreds of years, there’s a reference to him providing music for Schubert (the vampires’ association with key cultural figures is a repeated point), but now he seems permanently stuck in the mid-late 20th century. He’s fixated on vinyl and old guitars, a preoccupation that’s far more believable for someone born a lot more recently than he’s supposed to have been (like, say… Jim Jarmusch?).
Hiddleston and Swinton both look fantastic in their central roles, getting a little deadpan comedy out of the proceedings, and Jarmusch brings a lot of memorable imagery and astute ideas into Only Lovers Left Alive, but as a whole it’s an indulgent, languid film practically void of any incident or character development. Maybe that’s what eternal life would really feel like?