LOS ANGELES — “The Thin Man” with blood cocktails, an ode to hipsterism through the ages, a mainline shot of cool and a playful tribute to artistic fetishism, Jim Jarmusch’s vampire romance “Only Lovers Left Alive” is an addictive mood and tone piece, a nocturnal reverie that incidentally celebrates a marriage that has lasted untold centuries. Almost nothing happens in this minor-key drift through a desolate, imperiled modern world, and yet it is the perennial downtown filmmaker’s best work in many years, probably since 1995’s “Dead Man,” with which it shares a sense of quiet, heady, perilous passage.
Vampire stories come in all shapes and sizes and the blessed and afflicted couple here is well-dressed, madly sophisticated, has impeccable taste in music and literature (the couple’s closest friend is Christopher Marlowe) and is still in love like newlyweds. The woman’s younger sister considers them condescending snobs, but perhaps that’s just a negative way of acknowledging that, given hundreds of years of years of exposure to art and culture, one would be a fool not to have developed a high level of discrimination in such matters.
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) has become quite the recluse. Holed up in an old house in an abandoned part of Detroit, he plays vinyl classics and collects rare vintage guitars brought to him by roadie type Ian (Anton Yelchin). In the not quite as depopulated streets of Tangier, Eve (Tilda Swinton) seeks out Marlowe (John Hurt), whose Shakespeare connection is bandied about. More to the point, however, is his value as a source of “the good stuff” — purified blood their kind can reliably consume now that human — aka “zombie” — blood has become dangerously contaminated.
This represents an unambiguous drug addiction reference, to be sure, but it also casts these vampires as an endangered species and, increasingly, as potential tragic figures, avatars of cultivation, sophistication and monogamous devotion that put average humans to shame but may be doomed now that their food supply has been ruined. For his part, Adam sometimes receives “good stuff” from a medical facility supplier, Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright).
When, at the 40-minute point, Eve returns to Adam in Detroit, there is instant rapture, a perpetuation of the presumed longest love affair in the world (a photo documents their third wedding, in 1868). With the spirited Eve the driving force in the relationship more than the laid-back Adam, the two British-accented connoisseurs loll around the house, listen to great music, drink great blood, speak about old acquaintances (Lord Byron, Mary Wollstonecraft), are looked down upon by a photo gallery of artistic heroes (Buster Keaton, Mark Twain) and take a nighttime tour in Adam’s old Jaguar coupe of decimated Detroit.
To Adam’s irritation, they are soon joined by Eve’s wild girl imp of a sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), whose reckless vampiric ways so disrupt their domestic tranquility that the couple decides to decamp back to Tangier, where Eve can count on a continued supply of good stuff. When this is compromised, a thimble of doubt and suspense enters the equation, as the ancient pair contemplate their fate. Will this be the end, or might they actually have to deign to descend from their tower of refinement and rejoin the hunt?
Swinton is quite wonderful and unusually accessible here in a generous, emotional, tender performance. With a recessive partner mostly devoted to interior experiences, Eve must do most of the work to animate their relationship and Swinton, wearing long, nearly platinum-blond hair, gives herself to this enterprise without going over the top. Hiddleston, with the longhaired look of a rock star, is required to be far more withdrawn but is a credible bohemian for the ages. Wasikowska supplies antic, intentionally grating abandon as the dangerous sister, Yelchin is sweet as Adam’s flunky and Hurt presents his 16th century playwright as a crusty old wise man.
Physically and musically, the film is lovely.
“Only Lovers Left Alive,” a Sony Pictures Classic release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “language and brief nudity.” Running time: 123 minutes.
MPAA rating definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.