Most people define Jim Jarmusch by the impeccably cool hipster portraits of his early films in the 1980s, such as “Down by Law” or “Mystery Train.” But if you think about it, he’s really been moving through a series of genre flicks for the past two decades: a Western (“Dead Man”), a gangster movie (“Ghost Dog”), a spy flick (“The Limits of Control”), even a self-realization road-trip film (“Broken Flowers”). Of course, all of these are warped, as Jarmusch likes to use genre as a flask into which he pours his own strange brew.
Flasks figure highly in “Only Lovers Left Alive,” Jarmusch’s stab at a vampire flick, as eternally undead couple Adam and Eve (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton) carry around a hip flask of plasma to sip on when they’re feeling the urge; as for actually biting people, well, “That’s so 15th century.”
Eve is in Tangiers hanging out with Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) — another vampire from way back when Shakespeare was ripping him off — when she gets a call from Adam, who is a mythic rock ‘n’ roll recluse living in a dilapidated, vaguely haunted-mansion sort of home studio in Detroit. He’s feeling vaguely suicidal: The “zombies,” as he calls normal humans, have got him down, so Eva goes to cheer him up. Her visit is interrupted by the arrival of her wild-child sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), who has a tendency to bring trouble in her wake.
As is usual for Jarmusch movies, not a lot happens, and what does certainly takes its time doing so. But also, like the better Jarmusch films, “Only Lovers Left Alive” takes you by the hand and leads you deep into its languid ennui. This is the vampire film as opium-dream ecstasy; imagine Andy Warhol’s Factory crew getting a couple of stoned superstars to play vampires as the junkies they were with a heady drone-rock soundtrack by John Cale-era Velvet Underground. (Much of the music here is provided by Jarmusch’s own band, Squrl.)
Some of the scenes here are pure gold: Swinton and Hiddleston, tossing back shots of blood, their heads thrown back and bodies collapsing in orgiastic bliss as the camera levitates above them; driving at night through the eerie urban “wilderness” of abandoned Detroit streets; a Lebanese chanteuse crooning over haunting psychedelic shimmers in a back-alley Moroccan cafe; Swinton and Hiddleston shot in gorgeous tableaux, their pale bodies and crispy Goth hair entwined. It’s got atmosphere to die for; less apparent is the undertow of narrative drive that makes Jarmusch’s better films fulfilling.
In a sense, Jarmusch has always been about filling his movies with things that he thinks are cool. (And he’s not all that different from that other New York auteur, Woody Allen, in that way.) At times, though, “Only Lovers Left Alive” seems like merely that: the wall full of monochrome portraits of Adam’s idols, ranging from Edgar Allan Poe to Neil Young; the lo-tech fetishism of rare 7-inch records, Telefunken reel-to-reel recorders and Silvertone guitars; the name-dropping of Lord Byron, Chet Atkins and Jack Black. Rather like Wes Anderson’s work, “Only Lovers Left Alive” feels less like a “story” and more like a world the director would like to curl up and disappear into. Sensualists will approve; “Twilight” fans will run squealing.