Dead or alive, the world keeps on spinning in Only Lovers Left Alive. If you’re a melancholic vampire who’s spent multiple centuries watching humanity implode, this might sound like a harsh reality. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) certainly thinks so, living reclusively on the outskirts of abandoned Detroit in an expansive house crammed with musical instruments and vintage artifacts. At the beginning of Jim Jarmusch’s singular film, Adam has planted himself at the epicenter of economic chaos, brooding in isolation about the living “zombies” and their tenacious knack for death. There’s even flirtation with suicide by way of a wooden bullet.
Eve (Tilda Swinton), Adam’s lanky, blonde, egretlike wife, resides on the other side of the planet in balmy Tangier. Caught in a permanent trance by the salty air drifting in from the Straight of Gibraltar, she appreciates the infinite possibility her immortality affords. Sensing a disturbance with Adam (a theme of unspoken interconnectedness that plays out beautifully), she hops on a plane and ventures westward to the land of the seemingly undead.
Once Adam and Eve are reunited, their embrace is so intense that their bodies threaten to mold into one. We’re not sure how long it’s been since they’ve seen each other, or why they are living apart. Jarmusch lays out a few hints, but he’s much more eager to slyly reference their wealth of talents. The script is riddled with comedic irony surrounding Adam’s century-spanning music career (he gave Schubert a key symphony movement just “to get the work out there”), but it’s much more sincere about Eve’s complete knowledge of science and history.
Heightened awareness is a blessing and a curse in Only Lovers Left Alive. Adam and Eve can sense humanity’s self-destruction on the horizon, having seen it so many times before. Everything is out of whack. Nature’s cycles are askew, mirroring the warped social priorities brought on by the Internet age; Eve’s terror of a little sister, Eva (Mia Wasikowska), appears midway through the story to prove this point ad nauseam. Not only does she interrupt their peaceful nocturnal interludes; the film itself is suddenly struck with a darkly acidic tone. Her presence is toxic.
Many of Jarmusch’s previous efforts track a single character’s tumultuous journey toward spiritual enlightenment, the best example being Johnny Depp’s mortally wounded accountant traveling deeper into a Western heart of darkness in 1995’s Dead Man. With Only Lovers Left Alive, he subverts this model a bit, bringing together two immortal figures that have already achieved a higher consciousness but need each other to rekindle their base human desires.
Watching them do so is a sublime experience. Jarmusch is a master of grafting emotional resonance from deadpan subtlety, striking a balance between laidback moodiness and intense internal feeling. Look no further than the scene when Eve confronts Adam about his self-destructive tendencies. After a difficult conversation that calls into question their relationship, Eve retreats to one of their shared passions: vinyl. She flips on Denise LaSalle’s “Trapped by a Thing Called Love” and starts swaying, luring Adam to join her in one of cinema history’s great dances.
It’s here that Eve begins to revitalize Adam’s faith in possibility, a theme that plays out in surprising ways as the film progresses. Jarmusch leans heavily on Swinton to personify this ideology, and she does so with maximum grace and intelligence. For an actor who’s transformed into monsters and madwomen alike, Eve reminds us that Swinton’s an actor equally capable of inhabiting a passionate and humble soul.
Despite its dark subject matter, Only Lovers Left Alive—which opens Friday, April 25, at Hillcrest Cinemas—is not a horror film, but a film about avoiding the horrors of loneliness.
“I’m a survivor, baby,” Eve says in playful fashion. But she understands that living forever would mean nothing without her one and only. Love is for the heartless, too.