Posted May 10, 2014 by William Dunmyer in Mediocre Arthouse

Only Lovers Left Alive: Great Look, Great Characters, No Story

Only Lovers Left Alive is a storyless new film from Jim Jarmusch about hip vampires. It has a two-hour running time, which feels like three. At the 90-minute mark, I wanted to drive a stake through its heart.

The film does have a great look. In fact it reeks of style. It has some of the best hair, make-up, costumes and overall art direction that I’ve seen in years. The music is also fantastic. As well, there are wonderfully vivid characters. A group of highly literate, artistic vampires have been enriching the world with great literature and music for hundreds of years. They can’t publish in their own names, so they have to ghost-write for others or release their work anonymously.

The problem is that Jarmusch has nothing for these colorful vampires to do! Yet again, we have a storyless arthouse film in the 21st century. So many filmmakers today dream up great characters but cannot figure out what to have those characters do. We are supposed to be enriched by watching them walk around looking cool. I hate to sound like a broken record, but it bears repeating: many arthouse films today resemble music videos.

There are some story elements that appear here and there. Adam, the vampire played adequately by Tom Hiddleston, is considering suicide. But this is only touched on briefly. The poisoning of the planet by “zombies” (vampire slang for mortal humans) has gotten so terrible that even zombie blood is getting toxic. How’s a vampire going to get nutritious blood in the 21st century?

There are also numerous discussions of the fate of Detroit, where Adam lives. The bombed-out ruins of Detroit are photographed at night in a few very poignant, elegaic sequences. But none of these potential story elements ever goes anywhere. Jarmusch only scratches surfaces. He won’t sink his teeth into anything. (Pardon the pun.)

Adam’s wife, Eve, (Adam and Eve, get it?) is played marvelously by Tilda Swinton. Thank heaven for Swinton; she brings every scene she’s in to vibrant life. Would that Jarmusch had given her something more to do than look great and deliver her lines with verve.

There is a slightly interesting interlude when Eve’s sister comes to stay with them. She is reckless and immature, played fairly well by Mia Wasikowska. She gets them into trouble by drawing zombie attention. I thought this was going to trigger something like a story. But no, they simply kick her out, and that story element is eliminated forthwith. We go right back to Adam and Eve lamenting the state of zombie blood and walking around their home languidly.

Jarmusch, who has made around a dozen films now, is running out of gas and is having less and less to say as an artist. All he seems to have left is visual style.

But the style is so good and these characters are such a joy to be around that I wouldn’t be surprised if the film became something of a cult favorite, especially among bookish mortals who come alive at night — a more literary version of Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983) perhaps.

What to do at 3am when you’re too wired to read any more Baudelaire, Rimbaud or Nietzsche? Put in your DVD copy of Only Lovers and fancy yourself living forever alongside Swinton and Hiddleston, reading poetry, looking at art, and listening to music all night for centuries. Peaceful, art-loving vampires.

Sounds pleasurable to me. Maybe the film doesn’t have to be very good to please a certain segment of the hipster audience — and that’s perfectly fine with me.


William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.