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Only Lovers Left Alive

Sony Pictures // R // August 19, 2014
List Price: $35.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted September 8, 2014 | E-mail the Author
One of the most popular lines from HBO's "True Detective" is "Time is a flat circle," a sentiment adapted from Nietzsche and, well, we'll say "borrowed" from poet Dennis McHale. Director / writer Jim Jarmusch might interpret this vision of never-ending repetition as a vinyl LP, its grooves capturing music in a form that will not deteriorate or degrade with the passage of time, just usage. Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive is a unique vampire film, focusing not on blood-sucking, but how the burden of eternal life weighs on the film's protagonists, a married couple named Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton).

For reasons left unexplained, Adam and Eve live in different places. Eve resides in Tangier, with her old friend Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who occasionally grouses about having given up credit for his greatest writing to others (William Shakespeare, for example). Adam, meanwhile, lives in Detroit, focusing on the failures of humanity through the city's deserted buildings and abandoned industry. He indulges himself a little, buying vintage guitars from his single human friend, Ian (Anton Yelchin), but contemplates suicide, even going so far as to have Ian find someone to make him a wooden bullet ("for an art project," he tells Ian, who doesn't bat an eye). When Eve discovers Adam's existential misery, she hops on a night plane to America, hoping to remind him of the world's wonders, but their party is crashed by Eve's obnoxious sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska).

All of Jarmusch's movies have exuded his jazzy sense of underground hipness, but Only Lovers uses pop culture in a different way. There's something more monotonous about night than day, and Adam and Eve have been alive for centuries. Their only way of marking time is art and culture, and they drive around Detroit studying buildings and talking about the universe, marveling at how much has changed and anticipating the time when everything will change again. Like the LP, there's a sense of repetition, that humanity's conflicts ebb and flow like clockwork, a thought that is somewhat comforting to Eve and frustrates Adam, who laments humanity's "fear of their own imagination", and despairs about our ability to poison our water and even our own blood. In a line that might not have seemed as pointed in 2013 when the film premiered, Adam asks Eve, "Have the water wars started yet?" "They're just starting, she replies. "They never figure it out until it's too late," he grumbles.

Jarmusch's films also have a reputation for their deliberate pacing, and Only Lovers pushes his usual shuffle to a languid extreme. Entire scenes occur with Adam and Eve draped over the couch, nearly motionless as they discuss guitars and authors and the human race. In several scenes, the pair just take in a song, their stillness only occasionally accentuated by a partial fade-in of the record over the image of their bodies, spinning round and round. In one scene, as Eve convinces Adam to dance, one can almost imagine they've been alive so long that each cut represents some other similar emotional low in their past, the same but different, as they fall into the same trap as the humans Adam is so dismissive of. Although the film covers several days, even weeks, there are little to no clues as to when time is passing. All of these choices emphasize the film's pace, but it's intentional, an attempt to get the viewer on the same restless emotional page as Adam and Eve. Ava and Christopher Marlowe occupy the opposite ends of the spectrum, with Ava in particular appearing as a reckless force of nature still intoxicated by the idea of being a vampire. Watching her, it's hard to say if it will wear off over time, or if it's just luck that Adam and Eve were turned with more emotional maturity under their belts.

The bleak landscape of Detroit (both in terms of the early-morning hours and the remnants of what once was) is occasionally punctured by humor, including Jeffrey Wright as a nervous doctor who hooks Adam up with his necessary blood. When Adam visits, he wears ridiculous name tags on his outdated doctor costume such as "Dr. Faust" (one imagines he stopped just short of "Dr. Acula"), but then again, maybe Adam helped invent Faust, so perhaps he's entitled. Yelchin is endearing as Adam's friend, overwhelmed with excited, nervous energy when Adam, Eve, and Ava all go out to see a rock show at a local club. Even so, the film's world revolves around Swinton and Hiddleston, both intoxicatingly sensual as a couple whose bond is as enduring as their lives. Their chemistry is evident even when they're not speaking, as if pulling electrical current from the surrounding atmosphere. There may be pops and scratches, maybe even the occasional skip, but their record is always ready to go around again, another opportunity to dance.

The Blu-ray
Sony retains the original poster art of Swinton draped over Hiddleston for this Blu-ray edition, albeit with a new font and a rough white border framing the front and back covers. The movie's journey through a number of festivals is a focal point, and the colors are kind of amped up. The disc comes in an eco-friendly Vortex Blu-ray case, and there is no insert, nor is there any art on the reverse of the sleeve showing in through the case.

The Video and Audio
The heavy, never-ending darkness of Only Lovers Left Alive might be a challenge for some studios, but Sony's 1.85:1 1080p AVC disc is probably as good as the movie could possibly look. Despite the intense shadow detail required in nearly every shot, much less ever scene, I never spotted a definitive instance of banding or artifacting (although my eyes would occasionally dart around the screen in hopes of catching one). Some of the film looks a bit digital, namely a slow-motion shot of Tilda Swinton walking down a dark Tangier street, but that's inherent to the original photography. The color palette is subdued, but intentionally so, with strange shades of neon lighting and the yellow of street lamps providing many of the film's brightest sources.

If the visuals are sumptuous, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack hits the viewer like a hurricane, especially during some of the film's more languid moments, when a song on the soundtrack will fill up the entire soundscape. Guitar riffs drift out into the ether, long and lingering, no doubt an accentuation of the film's themes. Other scenes are eerily still and quiet, basking in the white noise in between big moments. Dialogue always sounds perfectly crisp, and the entire experience is quite enveloping. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and English and French subtitles are also included, as well as a lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 Descriptive Audio Track.

The Extras
The packaging only lists three extras, but the first two are both surprisingly lengthy. "Traveling at Night With Jim Jarmusch" (49:23) is a fly-on-the-wall making-of documentary with no traditional interviews or film clips. It consists entirely of B-roll capturing the minutia of day-to-day film production. Details like the oozing of blood from a flask are pored over and considered, all while Jarmusch and his crew hustle to get the film in the can before the sun comes up. It's exactly like the film: a bit slow and unconventional, but no doubt fascinating for the right audience.

This is followed by a large selection of deleted and extended scenes (26:22). Anyone who disliked the film might find these verge on the border of parody -- more songs and other pop culture ephemera are referenced, along with the occasional morsel of character development. There are also a couple of takes that seem like alternates, namely one with John Hurt. The disc then rounds out with a music video for Yasmine Hamdan's "Hal". All three of these extras are in HD.

Trailers for Magic in the Moonlight, Third Person, For No Good Reason, Jodorowsky's Dune, and The Lunchbox play before the main menu. An original theatrical trailer for Only Lovers Left Alive is also included.

Jarmusch has always been an acquired taste, and he pushes his eccentricities even further with Only Lovers Left Alive, a slow and sparse romance that shies away from traditional vampire theatrics. At the same time, the film is bolstered by strong performances and a hypnotic atmosphere that will draw in the patient. Bolstered by an excellent Blu-ray, both in A/V and extras, Lovers is highly recommended.

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