“I’m a survivor, baby.”
So says Eve (Tilda Swinton) to Adam (Tom Hiddleston) in Jim Jarmusch’s romantic, cool, mesmerizing vampire love story “Only Lovers Left Alive,” opening Friday. The story of a centuries-old couple reunited in present-day Detroit is an idiosyncratic gem, and a vampire film that feels utterly, thrillingly fresh.
It is Jarmusch’s most hypnotic and finest creation since 1995’s “Dead Man,” and is arguably more satisfying than that black-and-white Johnny Depp film. In fact, “Only Lovers Left Alive” might be the director’s strongest film since his trio of 1980s masterpieces, “Stranger Than Paradise,” “Down By Law” and “Mystery Train.”
It certainly offers a more straightforward narrative than his last film, the underrated “Limits of Control.” Happily, though, it retains the quirky feel of his best work, while also jettisoning some of Jarmusch’s often forced sense of whimsy to create a compelling, memorable romance.
Swinton and Hiddleston are remarkable as the central couple, a pair whose epic personal history spans centuries. As the film opens, Eve is in Tangier, strutting the streets in white from head to toe on her way to meet fellow vampire Christopher Marlowe, played by a delightfully wizened John Hurt.
Yes, the very Christopher Marlowe some theorize authored Shakespeare’s greatest works. (More on that later in the film.)
Meanwhile, in a dark, seemingly deserted part of Detroit, Hiddleston’s Adam gracefully slinks around his decaying house in a 100-year-old dressing gown. He is a reclusive musical genius – Adam once gave Schubert a string quartet, you know – whose post-rock “funeral music,” as he calls it, swirls on the soundtrack.
Adam’s only contact with the outside world is Ian, a sweet, dopey hanger-on who aims to please, and Jeffrey Wright’s Dr. Watson, whom he visits, in disguise, for clean blood. But his greatest connection is still his Eve, who FaceTimes Adam from Tangier.
Saddened by his declining mental state, Eve crosses the Atlantic for a reunion. The couple’s peculiar domestic bliss is fascinating. Eve asks him to describe his old acquaintance Mary Wollstonecraft (“delicious”), they play chess, they drive around Detroit – at night, of course.
Soon comes conflict, as Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) rockets into the film in a slinky dress and mussed makeup. Ava is a Los Angeles underground rock-club kid – a different kind of vampire – and she maximizes the dark comic vibe of “Lovers.”
Wasikowska is a treat. The actress has never had the opportunity to play a character quite like Ava before, a giggling, unhinged, ever-thirsty mini-diva who excels at detonating almost every situation she finds herself in.
After Ava makes an unsurprising mistake (and exits the film far too quickly), Eve and Adam are forced once more to clean up her mess. From here, “Only Lovers Left Alive” embraces paranoia, leading our couple into desperation and possible danger.
Jarmusch elicits memorable performances from every member of the small cast, especially Swinton, Hiddleston and Wasikowska. The director’s script is endlessly witty, the cinematography from the great Yorick Le Saux (“I Am Love”) is lush and mysterious, and the music composed by Jozef van Wissem enhances vistas both urban and exotic.
The overarching feel is unmistakably that of a Jarmusch film, but on a heretofore unreached scale. Here is a film in which the appearance of a vampiric Christopher Marlowe does not feel the least bit incongruous, and one in which the admittedly overused vampire-as-addict motif is handled with winking elegance.
It is appropriate that a film about centuries-old vampires lusting for safe, uncontaminated blood would end on a rather pessimistic note, and indeed, the final half hour of “Only Lovers Left Alive” is downright sad. It is not a hopeless finale, but does see Adam and Eve regressing back into survivor mode, with an unsettled future ahead of them.
The open-endedness of the film’s conclusion is thematically appropriate. It makes the audience feel as if Jarmusch’s dreamlike film could loop back to the beginning, in a circle, and run again, and again and again. How wonderfully fitting.
Only Lovers Left Alive
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, Mia Wasikowska, Anton Yelchin
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Running time: 123 minutes
Rating: R for language and brief nudity.
The Lowdown: A depressed vampire reunites with his lover, though their centuries-long romance is disrupted by the arrival of her uncontrollable younger sister.