Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston play aging, anxious vampires in ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, the new joint from relentlessly stylish filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. Darkly funny and perfectly cast, the film seems to pretend that no other vampire movies have been made in the last 50 years, which is both a plus and a problem.
The film begins with parallel scenes in Detroit and Tangier where the millennia-old lovers—they call themselves Adam and Eve—maintain separate residences. Hey, it's tough to make a marriage work for that long. The 7,000-year itch, I suppose.
Tucked away in a derelict house amid Detroit's vast ruins, Adam spends his nights recording dark, heavy music using vintage analog equipment. A veteran musician (very veteran—he used to ghostwrite for Schubert), Adam has retired from his more recent rock star life and just wants to be left alone—maybe forever. He dispatches his human acolyte (Anton Yelchin) to find a wooden bullet for his suicidal contingency plan. Meanwhile, Adam gets his blood supply from a friendly local doctor.
Eve has comfortably settled in Morocco and gets bottled blood from fellow vampire Christopher Marlowe. Yes, that Marlowe—the 16th-century playwright who, it turns out, has been keeping lots of secrets. Worried about Adam's depression, Eve takes a plane out of Tangier to join him in Detroit. A speed-reading, multilingual book fetishist, her only carry-on luggage is a suitcase full of world literature.
What happens from here is best left unrevealed, but rest assured that the director has fun playing with vampire tropes both familiar and unique. The conflation of vampires with rock stars and addicts is awfully well worn territory, but Jarmusch treats the dusty conceit as if Anne Rice, goth-rock and the entire modern horror film canon never existed.
This blunts the effect of the Adam character. As sinister and glamorous as Hiddleston is, the gloomy vampire rock star is hard to pull off without evoking parody. On the upside, ignoring pop culture context allows Jarmusch to plunge into the core darkness of vampirism without having to wink and nod. When Adam and Eve drink blood—always bottled; they gave up vulgar hunting centuries ago—they nod off like junkies in dizzying sequences that are nearly narcotic themselves.
Later, Jarmusch introduces an ecological obstacle when the vampires realize their particular brand of nonrenewable energy is finite in this modern age. "They've succeeded in contaminating their own blood, not to mention the planet," Adam sighs. Mia Wasikowska shows up about halfway through as Eve's little sister Ava, a younger and more reckless vampire who still likes to feed the old-fashioned way. The film's funniest scenes involve the older vampires' frustration at their impetuous houseguest.
Only Lovers Left Alive depicts vampires as immortal culture vultures that value books and music in a way we mortals will never understand. Like many of Jarmusch's films, it feels a bit smug at times, but the welcome current of dark humor suggests no one is taking any of this too seriously.
If you like your vampire films stocked with references to Nikola Tesla, Elizabethan literature and Iggy Pop, then Lovers is undeniably a good time, and a pleasant counterpoint to whatever YA franchise Hollywood has queued up next.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Reality bites."