The new Jim Jarmusch movie unfolds in what might be an after-hours nightclub of the 1980s—a hermetic world where it's always dark, but the pale-faced patrons wear shades anyway and could easily pass for vampires. Now they actually are.
Only Lovers Left Alive is a bloodsucker romance filtered through writer-director Jarmusch's familiar downtown sensibility. It's filled with boho banter and deadpan in-jokes, and its score is a no-wave mash of stately lute pieces (by composer Jozef van Wissem) drenched with squalling guitar feedback (provided by Jarmusch and his band, SQÜRL). The picture drifts like a dark bank of fog—it's mostly atmosphere. But it has feeling, too—about the passage of time, the ebb and flow of worldly things. It's a little skimpy, but also entertainingly strange, and it's not likely to be confused with any other movie.
The vampire protagonists are Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton). They're ageless hipsters whose romantic devotion has spanned centuries. They've seen it all—the Flood, the Plague, the Inquisition—and they've known everybody worth knowing (Lord Byron was "a pompous ass," Adam recalls). Eve is currently based in Tangier, surrounded by old books in many languages and venturing out at night to connect with her blood-dealing friend Marlowe (John Hurt), a playwright (yes, that Marlowe) who provides her with pure type O negative.
Adam, meanwhile, is hunkered down in the dismal ruins of Detroit, cultivating his depression about the sorry state of the modern world (especially its contaminated blood supply) and his disdain for the humans who've screwed it up. A gifted composer eternally cheated of public recognition by his vampire nature, he also broods about the injustice of his artistic obscurity. Eve, worried from afar about his mental state, books a flight to Detroit (a night flight, naturally) to cheer him up.
Hiddleston, with his dead-rockstar hair, and Swinton, with her wax-white skin and otherworldly eyes, are a droll undead couple, and Jarmusch surrounds them with wonderfully cluttered sets that suggest endless centuries of consumer accumulation. Adam's gothic mansion is a mad jumble of vinyl records, retro audio equipment, and all manner of vintage instruments. Apart from nighttime excursions to buy top-drawer blood from an amenable doctor (Jeffrey Wright), his only conduit to the outside world is a disheveled gofer named Ian (Anton Yelchin), who thinks Adam is just a reclusive musical genius and who tracks down the rare guitars he prizes.
Eve's arrival briefly dispels Adam's doleful solitude. But their reunion is spoiled by the unbidden appearance of Eve's sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), a chattering pixie vampire from Los Angeles. Her intrusion precipitates a bloody crisis that threatens to finally bring Adam and Eve's twilight lives to an end.
The movie is an original take on the vampire genre (although there's a nightclub scene that nods in the direction of Tony Scott's vamp-camp classic The Hunger). The picture might be interestingly paired, on some future double bill, with Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, which opened in limited release last week and is expanding across the country this weekend. That movie opens up the alien-invasion genre for an art-house mood exercise, dispensing with most of the gruesome specifics of the book on which it's based to focus on Scarlett Johansson's mysterious off-world visitor luring men to their doom in a strange pitch-black room. Glazer's film doesn't much resemble Only Lovers Left Alive—it's coolly oblique where Jarmusch's movie is warm and engaging. Together, though, the two pictures demonstrate new possibilities in the musty realm of the horror flick. They may seem slight, in different ways, but they take root in the mind, where the best of the old-school monster films still linger.