In "Only Lovers Left Alive," vampires are all undying, with a little patience.
They also have the best vintage collections, and the most jaded outlooks, both amassed over many centuries.
"I blame Byron and Shelley," says Eve (Tilda Swinton) in response to a recent bout with depression for her husband, Adam (Tom Hiddleston). But she loves his new music. Created in real life by the artists Jozef Van Wissem and Sqürl, the eerie, vaguely Middle-Eastern garage rock is the best music, Eve thinks, since Adam helped Chopin with one of his more difficult sonatas.
This smart and sardonic take on vampire mythology, by the smart and sardonic Jim Jarmusch ("Down by Law," "Broken Flowers"), breathes new life into what seems like a tired genre. Even the grim setting feels fresh, a decaying location with just as much grimy camouflage, and way more hipster cred, than the New Orleans setting of "True Blood": present-day Detroit, birthplace of Motown, Jack White and many square miles of the ruined remnants of the American automotive industry. What better place to hide out if you're the undead?
Here Adam has built an unintentional but legendary reputation as a reclusive musician, aided by the best equipment time and money can buy, much of it obtained through a local music industry guru named Ian (Anton Yelchin), who deals rare guitars like other men deal fine weapons and ammo.
Ian can find Adam just about anything, even a request borne out of depression so worrisome it prompts Eve to fly to his side from her home in Tangier — using red-eye flights only, of course. But her attempt to help Adam is complicated by an ill-timed visit from her younger sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), who complicates everything with acts so selfish they're comical.
But that's merely the plot of Jarmusch's film. Its lifeblood is its story, thick with commentary on the human condition, provided by inhuman characters who have Jarmusch's great human ear for dialogue writing it for them.
We get to know Adam and Eve as they take long drives through the Detroit night. They've been together for centuries, and their banter is priceless as it ranges from the glories of the past to the state of the present. At one point they stop to take in the monumental decay of the Michigan Theater, a former Italian renaissance colossus that now serves, as Adam notes with gritty irony, as a parking lot.
Adam's been around long enough to see humankind make great strides in science and culture only to waste them, and see it happen again. His house is the only one for miles with electricity because he doesn't use the grid. He's built an electricity conductor based on the work of Nikola Tesla that draws power from the atmosphere.
Another of Adam and Eve's friends, Christopher Marlowe, is still around, played by John Hurt. Wait until you hear what he thinks of the Shakespeare authorship debate.
The characters' main problem is related to their melancholy: their dwindling blood supply. Type O negative — "the good stuff," as they call it — is increasingly difficult to come by as humans continue to contaminate the Earth, and by extension themselves. Vampires such as Adam, Eve and Marlowe, who don't hunt, must go to more desperate ends to procure blood untainted by pollutants and disease. It acts on them like a narcotic, is difficult to obtain and without it they die. Needless to say, finding it provides much of the film's narrative and comedic bite.
Some might wonder how Jarmusch, such a natural candidate to make a movie about vampires, has only now released this film. Others might say it's just another riff on a style, as so many of his films are about characters who share similar habits — drinking blood aside — including nocturnal lifestyles, love of everything vintage, digging up obscure music and a general apathy.
This isn't a traditional vampire flick, with these versions serving as our cultural caretakers and pitying our dissolution. But it's highly enjoyable nonetheless, for its style, performances, caustic wit, amazing soundtrack and trenchant social commentary. It's also, like any good mythology, a reflection of its inventors. Things look dire, and if we continue to pollute the Earth, and push comes to shove, "Only Lovers Left Alive" suggests we better not feign innocence when the proverbial fangs come out. (R) 123 min. S