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Review: Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)

Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)

Directed by: Jim Jarmusch

Premise: A pair of vampire lovers (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton) reunite after a long separation but their lives are disrupted by the arrival of their unpredictable younger sister (Mia Wasikowska).

What Works: One of the impressive aspects of the vampire film is the way in which it has been able to adapt to different social circumstances. The many film adaptations of Dracula and other vampire stories have allowed filmmakers to apply their own approaches to the vampire myth and it has generally proven to be a very accommodating genre. Among the latest entries in the vampire genre is Only Lovers Left Alive, which finds a pair of vampires who have lived for centuries and are generally worn out by immortality. In keeping with contemporary trends of vampires as anti-heroes, the lead vampires of Only Lovers Left Alive have forgone preying on human beings and instead finagle blood in the same way others may acquire illicit substances. Only Lovers Left Alive follows several precedents in the vampire genre but none more so than The Hunger. Those familiar with the 1983 film will see the parallels almost immediately, especially in its use of music and stylish cinematography, and yet Only Lovers Left Alive is its own movie. In some ways it is a contemporary take on the issues and ideas pioneered in Tony Scott’s film. In this picture, the vampires live in contemporary Detroit and that alone is an interesting choice. Previous incarnations of Dracula often found the vampire living in decrepit castles, the ruins of a once great empire. Placing the vampires in the decayed streets of Detroit, the filmmakers of Only Lovers Left Alive find a new gothic location for the vampire to haunt and the two characters, particularly the one played by Tom Hiddleston, lament the way in which the country, the planet, and humanity’s blood supply have been ravaged by pollution and industrialization. The cast of Only Lovers Left Alive are terrific with Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as the vampire lovers. Swinton is an energetic and unpredictable presence and Hiddleston plays against type as a depressive and despondent character. The two of them have a romantic chemistry that is familiar to vampire stories but it is done better here than in other movies. The film also benefits from a lot of black humor that alleviates some of glum nature of the story and gives the film an unexpected humanity.

What Doesn’t: Only Lovers Left Alive is a slow and cerebral film. It isn’t the kind of terror-fest seen in Horror of Dracula nor does it feature the action oriented thrills of Underworld. Rather, the filmmakers approach the vampire myth with a self-aware exhaustion. They recognize that the vampire film has been overdone and the characters are run down by their own immortality. Because the movie lacks in traditional scares and thrills, a lot of mainstream viewers will find Only Lovers Left Alive puzzling. However, it may also disappoint some vampire fans. It isn’t a traditional cloak and fangs feature but it isn’t the sentimental romance of Twilight either. The filmmakers borrow from the different forms of the vampire subgenre but they usually do so for the purpose of setting the styles and conventions against each other. The irony is that as unique as this film is, Only Lovers Left Alive is actually quite consistent with recent entries in the vampire subgenre such as Let the Right One In, Byzantium and Kiss of the Damned. With the exception of Byzantium, Only Lovers Left Alive generally outdoes its contemporaries and it overcomes familiarity through the talents of its actors and its stylish production.

DVD extras: A documentary, deleted scenes, a music video, and trailers.

Bottom Line: Only Lovers Left Alive is a really interesting vampire film. The ways in which it’s different from more mainstream vampire stories is going to make it challenging or inaccessible to some audiences that that is exactly what makes it unique.

Episode: #513 (October 19, 2014)