Leave it to Jim Jarmusch, the director who gave film audiences the "psychedelic western," 1995's "Dead Man," and the gangster/samurai hybrid, "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai," to find a way to put his own unique stamp on that most trendy of cinematic monsters: the vampire. In "Only Lovers Left Alive," Jarmusch finds a way to shake off the recently accumulated residue of too many sparkly, lovesick bloodsuckers by recontextualizing the supernatural creatures as the ultimate hipsters. More than just a killer joke, it's a conceit of undeniable logic — after all, when you've been alive for centuries, you've liked just about everything before it was cool.
Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton play Adam and Eve, a vampire couple who've been married for centuries, but are currently living apart. Adam is living a reclusive life holed up in an abandoned mansion on the outskirts of Detroit, while Eve is in Tangiers hanging out with famed playwright Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt). Adam spends his time writing experimental rock music and collecting vintage guitars with the help of his eager-to-please assistant, Ian (Anton Yelchin, of J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek"). But over time his world-weary nature has devolved into a deep depression, which has in turn recently blossomed some occasionally suicidal tendencies. Maybe he's just been on his own for too long. True companions, even from opposite sides of the world, Eve senses that her lover is in need and immediately rushes to join him in America.
As with most of Jarmusch's films, narrative takes a back seat to character and tone. There's not much in the way of plot; the movie is content to be a simple slice-of-life tale — albeit an undead one. A story (of sorts) emerges only once Eve's troublemaking younger sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska, "Alice in Wonderland") appears. An oblivious agent of chaos, she provides an interruption to Adam and Eve's comfortably laconic existence.
Despite the presence of vampires, I wouldn't qualify "Only Lovers Left Alive" as a horror film, but while its languid pacing and moody tone keep it from becoming the rollicking good time the premise of "rock 'n' roll" vampires might suggest, it's still cool and witty in its laid-back way. The tone may be poetic and melancholy, but it's injected with a droll, deadpan sense of humor that offers a surprising amount of laughs for those on its wavelength. Less interested in the horror of their existence, Jarmusch is more concerned with using the supernatural creatures to offer perspective on our society as seen through their eyes. He explores what it might actually be like to exist as a vampire. What do you do to fill all that time you've got on your hands?
In the case of Eve and Adam, they've developed an insatiable thirst for knowledge, devouring art, literature, history, and culture with all the enthusiasm of those who have all the time in the world to appreciate it. They often refer to humanity as "zombies," with the implication being that our species are the ones sleepwalking our way through our lives, oblivious to the mess we're making of things. It's evident to the vampires that the wonders of the world are wasted on us. We've ruined our bodies and our environment so much that they can't even feed on us anymore. Adam pays a doctor (Jeffrey Wright, in a small but memorable role) at a nearby hospital to provide him with a steady supply of blood, though that seems as much about avoiding the bother of dealing with the logistics of cleanup after a feeding as it is about our contaminated blood. But the idea that humans are the ones who are a danger to the vampires is an idea that effectively generates a surprising sympathy for the predators, making them the vulnerable ones.
Swinton and Hiddleston are great together. They give their relationship pathos, easily creating a sense that there's a hundred lifetimes worth of history between them. Swinton in particular, with her naturally ethereal presence, seems born to play a vampire. Equally as important as Swinton and Hiddleston is Marco Bittner Rosser's exquisite production design. He creates a richly detailed world for the characters to inhabit, every inch of their environment filled with the ephemera and artistic relics they've collected over the centuries. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux finds just the right way to film it all, and he consistently finds visual interest in the constant darkness. Music plays a key role in the film, and Jozef van Wissem (with Jarmusch's band, Sqürl) contributes a fantastic, middle eastern-tinged score.
It all serves the purpose of creating a moving — even sweet — depiction of an unusually long-term relationship between beings for whom love is the ultimate lifeblood.