Age-old question gnaws at immortals in ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’

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The films of art-house director Jim Jarmusch explore the minutiae of everyday experience for people who live on the fringes of society, forgoing traditional narratives in favor of character development. While characters in his other films, such as “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” and “Coffee and Cigarettes,” navigate the world without trouble, viewers quickly become aware of the fact that they don’t fully belong, and Jarmusch’s career of more than 30 years has considered the different ways this disconnect can manifest.

Jarmusch’s newest film, “Only Lovers Left Alive,” which stars the ever-beautiful Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, explores outcasts on the border of society through our favorite overplayed mythical creatures: vampires!

Fret not — these aren’t your average sparkle-in-the-sun, overly sexualized vampires as shown in the “Twilight” films or on shows like “True Blood.” These vampires are moody, hungry, aged and misanthropic, very unlike other, more modern mainstream portrayals. They have utter disdain for the human race and all of its misgivings and do not immerse themselves directly in society.

Hiddleston plays Adam, a gloomy, self-indulgent rock star who has nothing but contempt for humans — or as he calls them, “zombies”— who have nothing but obsessive admiration for the mysterious musician. He spends his nights in a dilapidated house on the edge of Detroit, acquiring antique guitars through his only “zombie” acquaintance, Ian (Anton Yelchin), and contemplating suicide while dressed in all black. He even goes so far as to ask Ian to get him a bullet made of wood to do the deed, but a phone call from his wife, Eve (Swinton), changes that.

Eve lives in Tangier, dresses in all white and hangs out in Moroccan cafes with fellow vampire and Shakespeare contemporary Kit Marlowe (John Hurt). Afraid Adam is going to hurt himself, however, she immediately flies to Detroit to help him out of his centuries-long funk. In true Jarmusch fashion of character over plot, much of the film afterward focuses on the two as they drive throughout the city and wax poetic on their peculiar situation as immortal beings.

All of that goes down the drain when Eve’s younger and less-experienced sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska) — whom Adam, Eve and Kit have all been seeing in their dreams — arrives from Los Angeles. Her presence in the film highlights a staple of Jarmusch’s directing style: a dry, morbid sense of humor delivered at one of the film’s darkest moments. After Ava murders a musician by drinking his blood and complains of a stomachache, Eve shouts, “What did you expect? He’s from the fucking music industry!”

At first glance, “Only Lovers Left Alive” does not have the artistic, indie-film flare that has defined Jarmusch’s career, but the film makes up for it by emphasizing Adam and Eve as characters who doubly don’t fit into the rest of the world the film creates. As social pariahs who see humans as walking blood bags, the protagonist pair wanders through the dark places of Detroit and Tangier, eventually realizing that it is their love for, and understanding of, each other that keeps them going, and that is all they have left — hence the title of the film. Set to the backdrop of otherworldly sitars and beating drums, the film’s slow pace perfectly reflects this realization: It doesn’t rush viewers to a hasty ending, nor does it take too long to come to a fitting conclusion.

“Only Lovers Left Alive” does what so many other vampire films and shows have failed to accomplish. It draws viewers in with compelling and complex bloodsuckers and an equally complex love story. Jarmusch captures the essence of what vampires as a literary device are for: exploring our own humanity.

Contact Youssef Shokry at [email protected].