Photo by Gordon A. Timpen, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
There is a simple way to prepare oneself for Only Lovers Left Alive — just imagine a Jim Jarmusch movie about vampires starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston. Because that's exactly what it is: 123 minutes of spinning, languid shots and the titular cool perfected by Jarmusch. All his trademarks are there, from the dark sunglasses to the homage to rock-and-roll to that incredible outsider perspective. However, the outsiders this time, are immortal. In fact, if one is familiar with the director's oeuvre, this film is a delight to relish in — if, of course, you're into darkness.
Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston play the lovers, who are aptly named Adam and Eve. They are exact opposites, even in their choice of hometowns — Adam favors burned-down Detroit and its musical underpinnings while Eve likes the exotic privacy found in Tangier). Together, they comprise some sort of pale, vampiric yin and yang, both yearning for each other from afar but keenly aware of their differences. The story would not work if we didn't believe in their enduring long-distance love, but the moment that Eve and Adam connect, we see the joy they find in one another, the type of love that only becomes richer as the centuries fall away.
The film starts with a romantically depressed Adam, verging on a pathos reminiscent of Dark Shadows' Barnabas Collins. He lays about, collecting and fetishizing old instruments (supplied by an eager and naive Anton Yelchin), writing music, anonymously releasing it, and then scorning the attention it receives. When a far more content Eve — with her hair tied back and her iPhone in hand — senses this, she jumps a plane and heads for his needy arms.
Hiddleston is a fine, dedicated actor who plays Adam with a wry weariness that makes his sad-sack nature likable. Yet, there is a problem with any sort of film involving Swinton: The eye drinks her in. And, such is the case with Only Lovers. Whenever she is onscreen, she commands all attention, channeling her wide-eyed otherworldliness to convince us she is centuries-old. Unlike her man, she revels in her existence, having conversations with, yes, mushrooms and continuing her life- (or death-) long friendship with John Hurt's Marlowe, who apparently was the real genius behind Shakespeare. Where Adam languishes and sulks, Eve poses, draping her legs over things, tying her stringy and ethereal hair up, lithe and light next to her beloved.
What makes this movie work so well is that it taps into Jarmusch's love of history — and certainly, no creature on this green earth can fully appreciate what has come before more than the immortal. Even though Adam disparagingly calls humanity "zombies," both he and Eve spend their time as bohemian celebrators of what humans have created. Adam listens to rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson, reminisces about "his" scientists, and celebrates Nicola Tesla. Eve is equally intellectual, though her world is about books and poetry, which she demonstrates by carefully packing her favorite tomes when she visits her lover. She has a preternatural ability to date the things she touches, and we can't get enough of hearing her coo over Adam's ancient instruments — uttering words like "tremendous", "fantastic", and "terrific" in her posh British accent. Like any tourist in Detroit, the two of them enjoy seeing where musician Jack White grew up. "Baby Jack White," Eve muses.
Mia Wasikowska appears as Eve's perpetually adolescent sister to disrupt their revel, but it is Jarmusch's visual vignettes that makes this movie so sumptuous. And, as with any of his films, the soundtrack is equally a character. The sludgy, slow-dive metal he chooses to punctuate Adam's life is as heavy and intellectual as the vampire who makes it.
The relationship between the two bloodsuckers is the beating heart of the film. Without the stress of children, bills, aging, and, well, life, the two can play the philosophers so admired by the director. That intellectualism, matched with heavy rock 'n' roll and the never-ending night needed by the undead, has returned vampires back to their rightful place: keepers of the weary, worldly ways of stone-cold cool.