There’s a measure of doom and gloom to almost every single element of Only Lovers Left Alive, and it’s perhaps because of this that it’s hard to truly fall in love with what it has to offer. There’s certainly something, and I don’t think it’s the plodding pace or the romanticism with which it presents its material. I think it’s the sadness that permeates every scene. It’s fitting and it is extremely effective, but it’s exactly the same thing that brought me further towards apathy than infatuation.
The leads are Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), not the biblical figures but vampires who have survived for centuries. Adam is currently a reclusive musician, living on the outskirts of Detroit and visited only by one man, Ian (Anton Yelchin), whom he pays good money to do jobs for him. Eve lives in Tangier, and we never really find out what she does to pass the time. Vampires need blood, so each one has found a dealer. Adam purchases his from the local hospital, specifically from a doctor, Watson (Jeffrey Wright), while Eve gets hers from an elderly vampire, Marlowe (John Hurt).
The Adam and Eve are lovers, and soon enough Eve is on her way to Detroit so the two can once again be together. They spend their days sleeping and their nights sitting around. They talk, play chess, listen to Adam’s music, and go for the occasional drive. They get their joy simply by being together. Isn’t that sweet? The film develops at a methodical pace, only truly progressing once Ava (Mia Wasikowska), a young vampire presumably turned by Eve, is entered into the picture. She acts as a catalyst for later events and then disappears.
If you are not a fan of slow-moving movies, Only Lovers Left Alive will not be for you. It takes about 3/4 of the film before anything truly happens. It is primarily about these two individuals interacting with one another. You will not get much in the way of plot or action. I know vampire movies nowadays don’t fit this sort of mold, but this is a different type of vampire movie.
It’s about the dialogue, the small moments, and about learning exactly what these characters feel — especially in regards to being alive for centuries upon centuries. They have different personalities and outlooks when it comes to essentially being immortal, but they are eternally connected, even when separated. We learn a lot about them over the course of the film. They’re both incredibly intelligent and well-read, which almost always leads to interesting dialogue and characters. When you put smart characters in your movie, the result is often far better than if they’re unintelligent. There’s more to listen to, there’s more nuance to the dialogue and the actors’ performances — it’s just a better decision all around, but it takes more proficiency from the filmmakers to not make them seem artificial.
Luckily, Only Lovers Left Alive is directed by Jim Jarmusch, who is an offbeat director who is also someone understanding of people, or at least can fake that he is. His films often focus more on the characters and setting the mood around them, and if you’re familiar with his films, you’ll recognize this as one of them almost immediately. It fits perfectly into his film canon.
The mood that is set here is not one of joy or happiness. That’s perfectly fine. That is what the film and its makers are going for, and it accomplishes that wonderfully. If you’re in the mood for a contemplative film shot through a tone of sadness, you’ll be getting exactly what you want if you watch this film. I struggle to love it after the fact. It is a spellbinding watch, one from which you cannot look away, but would I ever see it again? I don’t think I would.
Now, this isn’t a problem with the film. I mention it because it is how I am feeling now that I have seen it, and I offer it as a potential indication of how you might feel, too. I do not feel as if I wasted my time, but it would be disingenuous to say I fell in love with it, or any similar sentiment. It is a good, maybe even great movie, but it is not one that I think is for many people. It is too slow and too melancholic to have much mainstream appeal.
Everyone will be able to appreciate the performances turned in by the primary cast. Tom Hiddleston is a dark and gloomy loner, Tilda Swinton is a shining light of hope — and the way they develop their characters over the course of the film is as much a credit to them as it is the script. Neither is particularly energetic, but their interactions with one another and general demeanor — as well as the way they progress throughout the film — are fantastic. Mia Wasikowska isn’t in the film enough to make much of an impact, acting-wise, but she brings life to the party. Jeffrey Wright and John Hurt are glorified cameos, but seeing their familiar faces is always a pleasure.
Only Lovers Left Alive is a film that thrives on setting a mood and delivering interesting characters. It is steeped in sadness and gloom. It is an incredibly slow burn, but it’s captivating from start to finish. For a film based around a romance, it’s hard to feel romantic about it. It’s definitely worth seeing, especially for fans of director Jim Jarmusch.