Last Call

Tilda Swinton’s Underrated Vampire Movie is All About the Vibes

Sit back and let the music carry you.

Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive
Sony Pictures Classics

The amazing thing about vampires is that they can be whatever you want them to be. Terrifying, sexy, cool, nerdy, handsome, grotesque. A filmmaker like Mike Flanagan can imagine vampires as pale, winged creatures that lurk beneath the surface of Middle Eastern deserts, while Kathryn Bigelow can depict them as a bunch of psychotic, grungy American nomads.

In Only Lovers Left Alive, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch imagines vampires living secretly as sexy, rock and roll-obsessed nightwalkers. With its laid-back nonchalance and hazy aesthetic, the underrated 2014 film is a moody and quirky gothic romance that offers one of the most specific and well-realized visions of “vampire life” ever realized on-screen. No matter how many vampire movies you’ve watched, you won’t recognize these bloodsuckers.

Only Lovers Left Alive follows Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), centuries-old vampire lovers who may or may not have any relation to that Adam and Eve. When the film begins, they’re apart. Adam is living in Detroit, where he regularly contemplates suicide and continues to produce mysterious rock music using only vintage studio equipment. Eve is living in Tangier with one of the couple’s oldest friends, playwright vampire Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt).

After a distressing phone call with Adam, Eve decides to reunite with her paramour. From there, the pair spend most of the film having midnight sex and listening to music while touring through Detroit’s abandoned nighttime streets. Only Lovers Left Alive is, in other words, all about the vibes. Even when the arrival of Eve’s reckless younger sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), shatters Adam and Eve’s fragile peace, the movie handles the problems that follow with a relaxed acceptance that reflects its characters’ ageless nonchalance.

The film studiously avoids engaging too deeply with melodrama or violence. Ava’s selfish murder of one of Adam’s closest human friends is addressed with a sense of minor disappointment rather than apocalyptic fury. For some, that will mean Only Lovers Left Alive lacks the visceral sense of danger they typically look to vampire stories to provide. Others, however, will be amazed by just how committed Only Lovers Left Alive is to its subversive, romantic take on the vampire genre.

Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston turn in some of the coolest performances of their careers.

Sony Pictures Classics

Behind the camera, Jarmusch employs a visual style that consistently emphasizes the film’s dreamy, surreal nature. In particular, dissolves and overlays are used to great effect throughout, including in one sequence that cross-cuts between Adam writing new music in Detroit and Eve dancing by herself across the world in Tangier. Another scene, which lets images of Adam and Eve dancing to “Trapped by a Thing Called Love” freely flow and mingle together, is one of the most romantic you’ll ever see.

Together, Jarmusch and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux fill the film with deep shadows that make the moments when Adam and Eve lay across each other in bed look like gothic paintings. These choices perfectly match the story of a couple as obsessed with the relics of the past as they are with the agelessness of their romance. The film itself, and its unique take on vampires, therefore feels both decidedly modern yet hauntingly timeless.

Only Lovers Left Alive is streaming on HBO Max until March 31st.

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