With all of the religious-themed movies that have been making the rounds in cinemas recently, you’ll be forgiven if you think you’re in for more of the same from a film featuring lovers named Adam and Eve. You’ll realize soon enough that these two lovers—Eve with her long white locks, clumped and stringy as though the strands have remained unwashed for centuries, and Adam with his jet-black hair, not quite as long, but a bit out of place for a Biblical tale—only spring to life under the glare of the moon.
That’s right: We’re in for a vampire movie. But Only Lovers Left Alive is no Twilight. This is a Portrait of the Artists as the Undead, imagined by writer/director Jim Jarmusch (Mystery Train, Down by Law) in his first picture in five years.
As played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, these two are a different breed of bloodsucker than the tweens are used to. Like their director, Adam and Eve are creators, repudiating fame, preferring to disseminate their works quietly. They derisively refer to the humans who consume their art as “zombies.” That is to say, us—the drones who pay 12 bucks to get our Friday night cinematic fix.
While Eve hangs out in Tangier cafes with her great friend and supplier of the “good stuff” (vials of O-positive blood), Christopher Marlowe—yes, that Christopher Marlowe, yon scholars of Shakespeare and his ghostwriters— she senses that something is amiss with Adam, who’s holed up in a sprawling manse in that dilapidated city of the dead, Detroit.
When we first see Adam, the incredibly talented musician/recluse is being visited by Ian (Star Trek’s Chekov redux, Anton Yelchin), a sycophantic rock promoter who’s delivering a priceless collection of guitars, from a 1905 Gibson to a 1966 Hagstrom—and Adam’s willing to pay cash for them. A lot of cash. Caressing the Gibson, Adam wistfully recalls, “I once saw Eddie Cochran play one of these…”
“Wait,” says an incredulous Ian, “you actually saw Eddie Cochran play?” Adam’s eyes shift, then regain focus, as he continues: “Yeah, on YouTube.” How else could this pale, seemingly 30-something
man have seen the rockabilly pioneer, who died in 1960?
On his way out, Ian asks if there’s anything else “weird/interesting” that Adam might need. There is: a .38-caliber bullet, “made from the hardest wood you can find.”
Adam and Eve may be old-fashioned (centuries-long romances can leave couples set in their ways), but they communicate just like a pair of crazy kids—via Facetime. Separated by an ocean, but sensing Adam’s malaise, Eve decides to pay him an unexpected visit in Detroit.
“Give my regards to that suicidally romantic scoundrel,” says the grizzled Marlowe (played with exceptional world-weariness by a tousled John Hurt), as Eve replies, “Well, hopefully, he’s just romantic.”
“Even so,” continues Marlowe, “I blame Shelley and Byron, and some of those French assholes he used to hang around with.” Marlowe pleads with Eve to take care of herself, since he “can’t bear a world without [her].” And so she departs (booking nighttime flights, naturally), leaving the writer to mill about Tangier with the ghosts of Bowles and Burroughs.
Back in Detroit, Adam is considered a reclusive rock god, despite having ghostwritten for classical composers such as Schubert; groupies who glimpse through his second-story window are onto his scent, ringing his doorbell during the night.
So, he’s all too happy when his better half unexpectedly shows up on his decrepit doorstep. He takes her for a moonlit drive, away from the “rock-and-roll zombie kids.”
After their tour of the dead city, Adam makes one of his midnight runs to the local hospital, to covertly purchase more of that O-negative from a sympathetic doctor (played by a wry Jeffrey Wright), who teases, “You’re looking very pale there, doctor. Perhaps you need some sunlight.”
This is before Eve’s unpredictable younger sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), turns up from LA (or “Zombie Central,” as Adam calls it)—and she’s a lot less cultured when it comes to quenching her thirst.
But this isn’t so much a movie about plot; rather, it’s another exercise in mood and style, like Jarmusch’s last picture, The Limits of Control, only more accessible and welcoming, wonderful though that was.
Jarmusch is clearly having fun here. Take the photos covering Adam’s wall, strewn with the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Franz Kafka, Thelonius Monk, Billie Holiday, Buster Keaton and many more. Is the implication that they’re all vampires, still toiling away, secretly creating art under others’ names? It’s a diverting thought, as amusing as much of this movie, and one half-expects to see Jarmusch’s face on such a wall some day.
Only Lovers Left Alive
Starring Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Anton Yelchin, Mia Wasikowska, Jeffrey Wright and John Hurt. Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. At Kendall Square and Coolidge Corner.