One of the best films of the 1990s was Dead Man. With its gorgeous score by Neil Young, and spooky performance by Johnny Depp, Jim Jarmusch’s black and white masterpiece went back to the site of the original sin, the genocide of the native Americans. Only Lovers Left Alive, which stars Tom Hiddleston as a brooding musician, shows us the inevitable result.
Whatever you call it, Dead Couple, Dead City, or Dead America, Only Lovers Left Alive takes place in a graveyard. The lovers, Swinton and Hiddleston, are not in fact, technically alive. They’re a pair of highbrow vampires who live in the hollowed out, abandoned city of Detroit, a beautifully filmed necropolis that symbolizes the rotting corpse of the United States of America. Adam and Eve — yes, that’s what Jarmusch names them — are alive only in the sense that they embody the remnants of civilization in a country full of zombies, which is what Adam calls humans. Adam and Eve don’t feed on humans. They bribe a corrupt doctor at a local blood bank, but they’re not exactly what you would call “good vampires” either. They’re effete snobs, worried that the supply of blood is being tainted by processed foods and environmental devastation.
The film opens in a luminous, ethereal Tangiers, where Eve has “lived” during a long separation from Adam. Her companion, a man named Christopher Marlowe, John Hurt, sells her bottles of fine blood, and speaks with the kind of poetic wit you might expect from another famous, Elizabethan playwright. Jarmusch is a Shakespeare Truther. Back in Detroit, Adam lives in a dilapidated old mansion, the J.P. Donaldson House in Thrush Park, and a drives vintage a sports car powered by technology invented by Nikola Tesla. He has an unlimited supply of money, a recording studio, and a loyal employee named Ian, a human who helps him collect vintage guitars. One day he asks Ian to buy him a 38 caliber bullet made from the densest wood he can find. After Ian acquires the bullet, and Adam puts it in a revolver, which he points at his heart, we realize that he’s contemplating suicide. So, apparently, does Eva, who jumps on a plane, and goes back to Detroit to join her centuries old lover.
Only Lovers Left Alive suffers in comparison to Dead Man mainly by the virtue of its not having an original score by Neil Young. Adam is a brilliant composer who, 200 years before, ghost wrote adagios for Franz Schubert but we really have to take the film’s word for it. The soundtrack is competent but uninspired. But it really doesn’t matter. Only Lovers Left Alive is a visual, not an aural movie. We suspend our disbelief because Adam looks like a young Trent Reznor and has a cool British accent, and because he consorts with Eve, Tilda Swinton doing her best impression of a female version of David Bowie’s Thin White Duke. They both look like members of a superior race of beings who dropped out of the sky, certainly more believable as a pair of angels than Damiel and Cassiel from Wings of Desire. Adam’s recording studio, full of reel-to-reel tape recorders, ancient Marantz tuners, and the above mentioned vintage guitars has all the archaic chic that a great filmmaker can bring. When Adam and Eve go for a drive in Adam’s Tesla powered car, we can only marvel at Jarmusch’s visualization of Detroit. If you like action scenes or genuinely witty dialog, you’ll probably come away from Lovers Left Alive feeling somewhat underwhelmed, but if you can appreciate good cinematography you’ll probably watch it through twice, or even three times. If you’re a fan of Detroit “ruin porn” you’ll probably wish you could blow up each individual frame, print it out, and hang it in an art gallery. The night photography of Only Lovers Left Alive might just surpass the famous black and white cinematography from Dead Man.
Midway through the film, Ava, Eve’s little sister blows in from Los Angeles. Eva, a sociopathic little imp played by Mia Wasikowska as a sort of Buffy the Vampire, vampire, not vampire slayer, is centuries old, but she looks, and acts, more like 19 or 20. Unlike Adam, who looks to be about 35, and Eve, who’s about 50, Ava doesn’t carry herself with a heavy, brooding aura that come from contemplating the wisdom of the ages. She wants to taste her sister’s supply of high-quality blood, not like an aesthete wants her fine wine, but like a heroin addict needs her fix. She’s not a beautiful angel fallen from the heavens like Adam and Eve but a real vampire with a lustful, obsessive desire that hides behind the persona of a flirtatious party girl. Poor Ian, Adam’s lackey, never sees it coming. He has no idea his employer’s a vampire, or that the pretty young woman in the dark sunglasses, and the bright, floral dress is so dangerous.
After Ava murders Ian for his blood, Adam and Eve realize they have to leave Detroit, lest the cops start snooping around the old mansion. They dissolve Ian’s body in a vat of hydrochloric acid — a surprisingly powerful scene that makes us feel the impact of the poor young man’s death — and jump on a plane to go back to Tangiers. But things have changed. Christopher Marlowe is dying. Tangiers is just as beautiful, but Adam and Eve are no longer just cultivated visitors. Ava’s careless, cruel murder of Ian has brought out the vampire in them after all. Hiddleston and Swinton are now white, malevolent, Aryan invaders in a brown, Muslim city, a toxic presence who have sprung from the rotting corpse of the American empire, and are now ready to feast on an innocent people abroad. The final scene, where they come upon a beautiful young man and woman, a pair of tawny, dark eyed, Middle-Eastern lovers may not be quite as shocking as anything in a film like Interview With The Vampire, but it’s a promise of horrors to come.
Western civilization, having destroyed its own ecosystem, has become the flesh eating virus of Anglo-American imperialism.