By Dave Wilson | January 7, 2015
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, Anton Yelchin, John Hurt, Jeffrey Wright
A record spins on a turntable and we spin down from the rafters into the worlds of Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), two pale vampire lovers who while away the nighttime hours across the world from each other, “spooky bodies affecting each other from a distance.”
Adam is a brooding, black-clad figure in a ramshackle Detroit house, a reclusive musical genius who records haunting electric guitar dirges that find their way into the world’s underground clubs. He exists in a world of shadows and dark wood, faded Persian carpets, and a clutter of classic guitars, amplifiers, and analog recording equipment.
In Tangier, white-haired Eve is a passionate devotee of poetry and literature, awash in a sea of tan fabrics and pale blue silks. Her mentor, confidant, and source for “the really good stuff” (blood and conversation) is 16th century English dramatist and vampire, Christopher Marlowe, played by Sir John Hurt, whose frail, bearded “Kit” Marlowe is a charming hippie elder statesman, both mischievous and wise.
Adam and Eve have been lovers for centuries, and they are so secure in their love for each other that they spend years at a time living their undead lives apart in the environments that they prefer. As vampires, they must satisfy certain basic needs and in the first few minutes of the film, we see how vampire ethics have evolved since the 15th century. Both Adam and Eve procure black market medical supplies of O-negative blood, so that they can feed without harming humans. But what about their other needs? Such as finding a reason to get up when the sun goes down?
As we join Adam, he is in the throes of an existential crisis that draws Eve across the world to join him in Detroit and draw him back from the brink of suicide. Eve hopes to rekindle some spark of life in Adam, as they debate and reminisce, driving the Detroit streets in the dead of night, taking the kind of haunted tour that Jarmusch has always been a master of—past skeletal, burnt-out factories and into the maw of the crumbling, Jazz Age Michigan Theater, now nothing but a cavernous parking lot.
Just when it seems that Eve may be able to reach Adam, chaos arrives in the guise of Ava (Mia Wasikowska), Eve’s narcissistic waif of a sister, fresh from the L.A. club scene, who they’ve successfully managed to dodge for almost a century. Ava brings with her disorder, entropy, and a disregard for consequences that threatens the solitude and anonymity that Adam has cultivated in his Detroit sanctuary.
What makes Jarmusch’s vampire film stand out is that in its ability to take a masterful look at the inner life of twenty-first century immortals, it’s really not a vampire film at all. We are always on the inside, looking out. We sink into the cushions when the heroin swoon of the good stuff quenches our thirst. We drift through the night world of Detroit streets, hole-in-the-wall clubs, and narrow Moroccan alleys. The languid rhythms and distortion of Adam’s music make us inhabit Adam and Eve’s weary existence. And yet this film is whimsical, too, full of witty, meandering conversations, pointed aphorisms, revisionist history, and playful name-dropping. Blood and conversation ease the pain equally. But only literature and music can really take the edge off. On some level, Jarmusch’s film may simply be a plea for art and its ability to frame our lives and let us know that others have been here before us.
The heroin analogies are too close to the surface to be anything more than superficial, passing references. And yet, with characters named Adam and Eve, Jarmusch clearly has some sort of allegory in mind. Still, the film is open-ended enough to invite us to fill it. For me, the vampires in this movie seem to represent different ways of life, the kinds of choices we can make. Adam is self-obsessed, stuck on his own pain; his music and art are genuine expressions of his deepest longings, but they are endlessly, hopelessly self-referential—cries in a vacuum. Eve is all about openness and empathy, passion and life; she is never more alive than when she is expressing her love for Adam, smiling at him, caressing him, giving him a gift, or in one captivating moment, putting on a 45 and seducing Adam into dancing with her, and yes, even smiling. Finally, Mia Wasikowska’s impish Ava is nothing more than hedonistic abandon; childish and narcissistic, she takes from others, leaving nothing in return but ruin and disorder.
All valid ways to cope with life as a vampire.
And if you’ve walked the earth for any length of time, you’ve met Adam, Eve, and Ava, and have even made up your own mind about whose truth speaks to you most. Me? I’d like to hang out with “Kit” Marlowe for a while, laughing a little, scribbling a little, and taking a nip at the really good stuff.