The word, "vampires," is not once uttered in "Only Lovers Left Alive," but that is exactly what Adam (Tom Hilddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) are. Married to each other since 1868 and existing on the earth far longer than that, they have long given themselves over to each other, so assured are they in their devoted feelings that they think nothing of living decades apart. Trading Memphis for Detroit and Tangier, writer-director Jim Jarmusch (2005's "Broken Flowers
") has made a cool, laid-back, observational variation on his 1989 triptych, "Mystery Train." Motown, blues and rock 'n' roll are still very much a part of these characters' lives, but there's also blood-drinking and the whole undead thing with which to contend. As moody-chic as Jarmusch's low-key style is, subtlety is not his strongest suit, with everything from the significance of the names he has bestowed his protagonists to his blatant metaphors for drug addiction and the AIDS virus coming through loud and clear.
Sensing that Adam needs her by his side during one of their FaceTime chats, the Morocco-dwelling Eve packs her bags and books a red-eye flight to the United States. Holed up in his decaying abode planted in a virtually abandoned side of Detroit, Adam spends his waking hours strumming away at his guitar, usually venturing out only to refresh the blood supply given to him by Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright). When Eva returns, it is like she never went away, the two of them picking up their centuries-spanning romance with the ease of mortal soul mates. Awareness that they will never die a natural death has given them the freedom to do what they want to do, to savor every vinyl record and piece of literature they wish without experiencing the pressure to accomplish as the numbered years pass them by. The prospect of Adam's own endless existence has started to weigh on him, however, and he has recently procured a wooden .38-caliber bullet just in case he's ever had enough.
The industrial wilderness of Detroit and the exotic labyrinthine passageways of Tangier are as much a main character in "Only Lovers Left Alive" as Adam and Eve. Like the longtime couple, these places seem lost in time and yet a product of their current climate. Driving through the isolated nighttime streets of the ailing American city, they sightsee the once-lavish Michigan Theatre, stop to take in musician Jack White's childhood home, and end things in a car park. As befits creatures of the night who have been around for hundreds of years, Adam and Eve reference days spent with everyone from Percy Shelley to Lord Byron ("assholes," she calls them), and an undead Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) remains an affectionate father figure in Eve's life. In a film that is light on plot and large on mood and suggestion, Yorick Le Saux's (2012's "Arbitrage
") cinematography finds offbeat beauty in vintage architecture, lonely exteriors, and lived-in grunge.
For people who have had several regular lifetimes to get used to each other, Adam and Eve's relationship is minimally conflicted, the two of them never once raising their voices even when they disagree about something. It is a welcome change of pace for romantic partners to transcend the dramatic temptation to toss in a few yelling matches. Insomuch as pointy-teethed vamps are realistic, so, too, is their comfortable, second-nature interplay. When placed in the same frame as Tilda Swinton (2011's "We Need to Talk About Kevin
"), Tom Hiddleston (2013's "Thor: The Dark World
") falls into the background. He is well-cast in the role of Adam, but he is no match for Swinton's voracious watchability as the wiser, more practical Eve. Making a splash for the short time she is on the screen, Mia Wasikowska (2013's "Stoker
") brings a jolt of energy and unpredictable amusement to the story as Eve's younger loose-cannon sister, Ava, visiting from Los Angeles long enough to get a little too close to Ian, a mortal friend of Adam's played by Anton Yelchin (2014's "Odd Thomas
"). John Hurt (2011's "Melancholia
") rounds out the major players as wise poet Christopher Marlowe, thought to have died in 1593 but still very much around.
"That certainly was visual," Eve says after seeing a fresh corpse turn to bones after being tossed in a pool of toxic waste. Somber but not humorless, "Only Lovers Left Alive" plays to a languid but involving rhythm that is its own. Where the film loses some of its spell is in Jim Jarmusch's overly pointed, egotistical attitude. He sees Adam and Eve as superior beings to the unturned humans, whom they call "zombies." Aside from living longer, however, what makes them any better when they spend the bulk of their time moping around their dilapidating homes with no goals outside of scoring their next hit of the red stuff? Later in Tangier, they stop to take in a rapturous performance from Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan. "She'll be very famous," Eve comments. "God, I hope not," Adam replies, "She's way too good for that." In this moment, Adam has become Jarmusch, and the pomposity and bitterness shining through about the filmmaker's tastes on art and his professional misgivings take away from the narrative being spun. If "Only Lovers Left Alive" is on the nose nearly to a fault, the decision to put a new, edgy spin on a vampiric subject that has become safe and homogenized in popular culture is enough to forgive the picture's moments of transparent excess.