They can stop making vampire films now, because Jim Jarmusch has made the ultimate one. Only Lovers Left Alive takes the vampire as poet, as rock star, as junkie, as morose philosopher, as doomed lover to a place of such absolute perfection that any further examination of the type seems a waste of time.
Tom Hiddleston is transcendently good as Adam, a depressed vampire who records droning rock music that he releases in secret. With his Robert Smith hair, downbeat nature and constant name-dropping of old friends like Byron and Tesla, Adam is Jarmusch’s vampire take on Morpheus from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and after Only Lovers Left Alive Hiddleston is the only reasonable choice to play the character in any ill-advised adaptation. What makes Hiddleston so incredible in the film is the way he doesn’t quite take the character seriously; Adam played totally straight would be an insufferable bore, but Hiddleston brings in just enough arch self-awareness - while never playing anything as parody - to allow you to love the character. If you weren't sure whether Hiddleston would be a movie star, would be a figure we talk about for decades to come, this performance will make you see the light.
Opposite him is Tilda Swinton, playing the quantumly entangled opposite to his morose gloompire. Her Eve (yes) loves the world and her existence as a vampire; while Adam broods about the ways humans (he calls them zombies) are destroying the world, Eve has the perspective that they have lived through much, much darker times. Her ethereal otherness makes Swinton a perfect choice for an ageless vampire, but the beauty of Jarmusch's casting here is that she isn't playing ethereal or weird; Eve is pretty down to earth and normal (for a centuries old woman). It's casting against type of the highest order.
The archness that Hiddleston brings to his role permeates the film. There’s a scene where Adam and Eve drive through the abandoned streets of Detroit, coming to the house where Jack White grew up. They marvel at seeing such a historic place and imagine young Jack playing in the yard. “Little Jack White!” Eve enthuses. If you take this at face value it’s eye-rolling, but there’s a playfulness in the scene that makes it work. Yes, on some level Jarmusch is putting his pal Jack White into the company of legendary artists Adam has collected, but there’s the slightest tap of an elbow in the ribs.
Only Lovers Left Alive isn’t much of a narrative experience; there are plot points hit, but the movie is much more of a hang out film. When Mia Wasikowska shows up - she’s Eve’s ‘infamous’ sister, Eva - her childish party girl style brings conflict, but in a pretty low key way. There are no vampire battles, mostly just vampires standing in the street yelling ‘FUCK YOU!’ at each other.
It’s a glorious hang out experience. Adam may have a robe that’s two hundred years old, but he laments the fact that 21st century America is still on the grid, and he’s created a Tesla system that broadcasts electricity to his home. He has his webcam hooked up to a tube TV. He muses about quantum physics and the life cycle of mushrooms. Eve, who lives in Tangiers and chills with Christopher Marlowe - who not only wrote the works of Shakespeare but is also an ancient vampire played by John Hurt as a sort of immortal William Burroughs - reads books in every language and dances to music on her iPhone. The couple listen to old vinyl and marvel over hundred year old guitars. They exist in a perfect state of timelessness, enjoying and appreciating the old while constantly open to the excitement and possibility of the new.
In many ways Only Lovers Left Alive feels as much like a brilliant manifesto for living as it does a magnificent vampire movie. Read broadly and learn many things. Appreciate and cherish the old but be constantly open to the new. Immerse yourself in the arts. Dance. Make friends.Find love and give love. Be aware of the state of the world but don’t dwell on it. Doing great work and getting it out there is better than - and sometimes antithetical to - being famous. And frozen blood on a stick is a surprisingly refreshing treat.