There is so much to enjoy in this thoroughly un-frightening vampire flick that it seems unsporting to note the most glaring truth. But here it is: Jim Jarmusch needs somebody to help script his beautiful films. The discrepancy between images that cling in your mind for days and clunkers of dialogue that make you cringe and laugh in places he never intended is too huge. This movie doesn’t bite by a long shot, but it sometimes feels like there’s going to be a quiz afterward.
Clearly you should go see any movie Jarmusch makes. Each has its own delicate pacing and speed, and no one explores the nocturnal world like him. So vampires are perfect. This one opens with images of our two undead hipster protagonists, Tilda Swinton’s Eve and Tom Hiddleston as Adam, languishing, and it closes as they prepare to bite some smooching lovers. In between we get a tour of post-diaspora Detroit, blues from a turntable, and a riveting performance by the great Lebanese chanteuse Yasmine Hamdan. It almost doesn’t matter that there is not much real drama, besides a tragic visit from Eve’s trouble-in-mind vampire sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska). Jarmusch wants us to think, though. The undead patronize mortals, and yet they prize our soulful inclinations to music and literature. Adam loves beautiful electric guitars. The whole movie illustrates a line from William Blake: “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”
Now Jarmusch doesn’t mention Blake, but he can’t stop showing off his knowledge of the canon. There’s a constant flow of clichéd literary references here, and his vampires take credit for Shakespeare’s work, calling him a philistine zombie. Ultimately, the patronizing tone seems to be Jarmusch’s attitude toward his audience. He’s lecturing us. The vamp’s passports are made out to Stephen Dedalus and Daisy Buchanan. Okay, we get it. But minus the lit-crit fuss, Only Lovers Left Alive is fabulous, beautiful, and full of dazzling sights and sounds. Who needs to attend English lectures from the undead? You can get that at any college.