Although Jim Jarmusch's sly and seductive vampire movie, Only Lovers Left Alive, begins with gothic crimson-on-black titles in the vein (sorry) of vintage Hammer horror, this story of two very old souls who suck on O negative Popsicles is, in many ways, more about the life-sustaining force of music than any hankering for blood.
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a musician who lives in splendid, grubby isolation in a brick Victorian in a desolate quadrant of Detroit. His house is equipped with a guitar geek's dream inventory of rare Silvertones, Supros, Gibsons, and Gretsches, a Revox reel-to-reel, amps with tubes, 45s spinning on the turntable. He records loping, feedbacking compositions, which, despite his best efforts to keep them to himself, have somehow found their way out into the world: In certain circles, he is a demigod. A cult of devotees is trying to track this enigmatic figure down.
A virtual recluse, Adam gets the equipment he needs (music and otherwise) from an eager young hustler and music freak, Ian (Anton Yelchin), who is rewarded for his discretion, and diligence, with ridiculous wads of cash. There is a doctor at a Detroit hospital (a droll Jeffrey Wright) who supplies Adam with human blood. Life should be good.
But there's a terrible sadness in Hiddleston's eyes beneath the long, scraggly black hair. A request to Ian for a single .38-caliber bullet - one made of extremely hard wood - does not augur well.
Across the seas in Tangier, Adam's lover, Eve (Tilda Swinton), goes about her business. She has a marvelous library, and a dear friend (John Hurt) who supplies her with "the good stuff" from a French physician; this ancient Moroccan port, with its marketplaces and its mysteries, suits her well. But Adam's restlessness calls to her. She books the trip to Detroit (night flights, and night arrivals, only) and shows up at her lover's manse.
"I love what you've done to the place," she deadpans.
Swinton, her hair white and long and her eyes tired and kind, and Hiddleston, moody and resigned, are wonderful - delivering their lines with the dry sighs of a desert breeze. They don't flaunt their characters' debauchery, but these two are hardly innocents. They've been around - at least as long as that poseur Shakespeare (yes, Christopher Marlowe was the true Bard). Byron was a "pompous ass"; Mary Wollstonecraft "delicious."
Adam and Eve's sweet reunion is interrupted by the arrival of Eve's younger sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), a party girl - with fangs. Her idea of a good time goes beyond dancing up a storm at a Detroit nightclub.
Jarmusch, the veteran indie auteur, has worked his low-key magic on genres before, making a Western, Dead Man, with Johnny Depp (and Robert Mitchum, no less). And though the prerequisites of any self-respecting vampire tale are woven into the nocturnal fabric of Only Lovers Left Alive, the film is really about love, loss, and soldiering on, the ache of an old blues song.
Speaking of songs, among the sound track's trove of plaintive country tunes and hypnotic R & B originals (by Charlie Feathers, Denise LaSalle, Wanda Jackson, and others), Jarmusch works in some twangy instrumentals, many composed and performed by the director himself (with his band, SQÜRL). One number's script-specific title is "Spooky Action at a Distance." I love that.
The action in Only Lovers Left Alive is spooky, sometimes. But the moments of inaction - the tender exchanges between its plasma-hungry lovers - are what really make things soar.
Only Lovers Left Alive ***1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Jim Jarmusch. With Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Mia Wasikowska, Anton Yelchin. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
Running time: 2 hours, 3 mins.
Parent's guide: R (nudity, profanity, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Bourse and Carmike at the Ritz Center/NJ.EndText