Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive is a great drug film. Atmospheric, romantic,
doomed. Really, it’s the allegory of a tortured artist, but the drug metaphors are constant and in keeping with that theme. Imagine what being a vampire would really be like. Lonely and sad, you watch ordinary human beings (the zombies) destroy themselves and their world, making the same mistakes century after century. So you isolate yourself. The world falls apart around you, while you sit like a junky Buddha, filled to the overflowing by thousands of years of knowledge, creativity, and dead heroes. Unlike real-life Zen philosopher Nan-in, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) can’t empty his cup. The misery spills everywhere. So he stays still, composing music he wants as few people to hear as possible but is compelled to record. He’s surrounded by the ephemera and detritus of a thousand past lives and his walls are covered in portraits of his dead heroes. He explains his artistic depression and isolation to his vampire wife, Eve (Tilda Swinton): “It’s the zombies I’m sick of. And the fear… of their own fucking imaginations.”
But scoring clean, pure blood in the 21st century doesn’t make for a fun life, either. You have to get the good stuff – medical grade type O negative, available only from crooked doctors. “Now they’ve succeeded in contaminating their own fucking blood. Nevermind the water.” Like junkies, they drift through the night, trying to score, passing the alley shadows of Tangier dealers who have nothing to offer them, and in the midnight midst of the empty ruins of post-apocalyptic Detroit. Travelling anywhere is a nightmare of organizational set-up to maintain blood supply and avoid the daylight. The blood drinking scenes are performed with junky ritual. The euphoria hits and their faces are shown in close-up, falling back into oblivion in that trademark shot that has come to represent the hit. And, of course, as with junkies, the zombies wouldn’t want them even if they knew they were there.
This is Jarmusch, so there’s no three act plot. But the film is so atmospheric, you can smell the guitars, antique electronics, the antique clothes. The soundtrack is fantastic. It will grow on you after you leave the theater. So will the film. I didn’t like it at first. The intellectual references are a bit forced. You have to settle into what the film is trying to do. I thought there might be something missing apart from plot, but the film grows on you after you feel it. Like heroin.