Given the subject matter — centuries-old vampires, decaying places, boredom with immortality — “Only Lovers Left Alive” might easily be a dreary slog through genre territory.
Instead, Jim Jarmusch’s new one is full-bodied and sneaky-funny, a catalog of the director’s trademark interests yet a totally fresh experience. It’s his best since “Dead Man” (1995), and stirring evidence that the longtime indie darling is back as an expressive force.
Our two principal vampires begin the film in different parts of the world. Eve (Tilda Swinton) is a denizen of Tangier, where she slouches around the atmospheric streets at night. In this place Jarmusch creates an entire imagined city from a few well-chosen shots of plaza, wall, and a café called the Thousand and One Nights.
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) lives in Detroit, where he creates arty rock music and collects guitars. Adam needs Eve, so she joins him for some sessions of nocturnal prowling (daylight must be avoided, so she sticks to the red-eye flights).
Swinton and Hiddleston tease out just the right amount of humor from their roles, and John Hurt is briefly glorious as a certain writer whose best work happened 400 years ago. One does not expect much in the way of plot, and when Eve’s reckless sister (Mia Wasikowska) comes to town it almost seems like an intrusion—the pace has been so languid and luxurious up until then, you might actually resent this suggestion that a story is threatening to break out.
Why would vampires need a storyline? They live on without much change or growth, and can’t even look forward to an ending. So Jarmusch’s dilatory style actually suits their world nicely.
The film’s gorgeous design includes bohemian interiors (Adam’s pad, with its papered-over windows and cool bric-a-brac, looks inspired by Mick Jagger’s house of magic in “Performance”) and the desolation of Detroit’s empty streets.
The timeless vampires seem depressed about what has happened to the world; humans — Adam and Eve use the generic term “zombies” to describe the rest of us — have made a terrible botch out of such promise. All one can do is cling to culture and wait out the decline, holding tight to the books and vintage LPs and centuries-old apparel that serve as markers of a better time.
“Only Lovers” offers a handy metaphor for addiction, and perhaps Jarmusch was reaching for that — the protagonists live at the mercy of their suppliers, and they get really sick when blood is scarce. But that would limit the proceedings to a single meaning. This film’s decadence is much more fun than that.
“Only Lovers Left Alive” (4 stars)
A full-bodied and sneaky-funny new film from indie darling Jim Jarmusch, about two vampires (Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston) going through a rough patch. The movie’s gorgeous to look at, and the actors find just the right amount of humor in their roles.
Rating: R, for language, nudity
Opening: Friday at Guild 45th and Meridian.