'Only Lovers Left Alive' Is an Ode to the Eternally Undead City of Detroit

by Cynthia Fuchs

24 April 2014

These vampires anticipate and understand death, and yet they mean to avoid it. Just so, Detroit -- decaying, yet vivid and eternal -- is their most perfect self-reflection.


cover art

Only Lovers Left Alive

Director: Jim Jarmusch
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Anton Yelchin, John Hurt, Jeffrey Wright

(Sony Pictures Classics)
US theatrical: 11 Apr 2014 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 21 Feb 2014 (General release)

Eve (Tilda Swinton) lives in Tangier, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) in Detroit. Despite this distance, they’re a bit of a perfect couple, endlessly in love, deeply appreciative of each other’s needs and idiosyncrasies, willing to exist apart so long as they can be assured the other is fine, via regular cell phone dates. When, during the call that opens Only Lovers Left Alive, Eve hears that Adam is less than fine, she makes an immediate decision to go visit him. This despite the dreaded logistical complications and connections that comprise such a journey, as she can only travel by night.

The reason for the complications is because Eve is a vampire, as is Adam. And so they follow vampire rules, avoiding sunlight, cultivating particular talents, consuming blood. Each of these activities brings with it some comedic counterpoint to the generally wearying business of living forever, undead or not. They spend long hours sleeping and wandering, she reads books at super-speed and he composes and records rock-ish music, and also appears to collect portraits of historical figures, such that when you the camera pauses on Adam’s wall to show Emily Dickinson or Buster Keaton, you might pause in turn to wonder whether they—rather like Sylvester Stallone or Al Roker in Men in Black—might have been vampires too, or merely acquaintances.

For the most critical activity, feeding their addiction, Eve and Adam have devised their own routines: she meets with her mentor Kit Marlowe (John Hurt) in a shadowy café down the street, eager but not too eager to partake in some of the “really good stuff,” plasma of some particular vintage and origin, which she carries home in a plastic shopping bag. As she and Kit spend precious minutes together, it becomes clear that he’s ailing, whether from generalized fatigue or accidental intake of tainted blood (there’s lots of it around these days, and vampires need to be careful).

Adam pursues his fluids in a more apparently utilitarian way, even if his journey to a plainly underfunded hospital features dark shadows, a classic Jaguar, and a clandestine meeting with a Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright), who accepts wads o’ cash and asks no questions. (Adam also wears a white coat and a doctor’s nameplate that reads, “Faust,” which Watson notes with vaguely raised eyebrow). The two men’s brief encounter—standing neat to one another, but never too near—suggests layers of habit and distrust, as well as a certain intimacy. Each has his reasons for the arrangement and also, his secrets (that you don’t follow Watson home is something of a pity, as his story appears at least as odd as Adam’s).

Still, here you are, enticed by Adam’s story, winding with Jim Jarmuschian turns. These begin with Eve and include her sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska)—as careless as Eve is precise—as well as Watson and another dealer in not quite licit goods, Ian (Anton Yelchin). He arrives at night, his beater vehicle laden with vintage guitars for which Adam pays more than enough cash to keep their deals secret, and he even finds a way to procure a wooden bullet when Adam asks. Less a Renfield than a fanboy, Ian is drawn to Adam’s music, as is a pack of rock’n'roll kids who gather on occasional nights on the street outside of Adam’s scary-movie house in the middle of nowhere, leaning on their car, peering up at the upstairs window in search of a sign their hero is home.

It’s this sort of moment that makes Only Lovers Left Alive go, the moments where the camera lingers on desolation, in streets, beyond buildings, over a horizon. While Eve’s arrival changes the energy of Adam’s Detroit, it is the idea of Detroit that lingers, that shapes their story, no matter where they go. The couple drinks blood, enjoys blood popsicles, listens to Adam’s latest opus, and shares languorous sex rendered in restless close-ups. But their faces light up, in the sense of showing interest, as they drive the city’s streets in the dark, past broken windows and graffitied bricks walls, even as they declare their boredom and wonder what’s next.

When that next is delivered—not so surprisingly—via Ava, Adam and Eve doesn’t worry so much as they move on. They move slowly, making their way through streets and airports at night, and they discover in one another, or maybe rediscover, a gentle affection and genuine appreciation. Whatever their past, however they’ve found or made one another, they share a slowed-down rhythm and sense of decay. They anticipate and understand death, and yet they mean to avoid it, in their undeadness. Just so, Detroit—decaying, yet vivid and eternal—is their most perfect self-reflection.

Only Lovers Left Alive


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