I remember back when Twilight was the big thing and vampire romances were more popular than God’s own bacon, and I would smugly present Let The Right One In to my Twi-Hard friends to show them what a vampire romance with some actual teeth looked like. These days, in the wake of the massive success of Hunger Games, vampires would seem to have been knocked off their pedestal as the number one tween fiction genre of choice by dystopian futures with a-bit-too-obvious allegories for class inequalities and social upheaval. And just like I was waving Let The Right One In around to show people how cool and with it I was in the then-current cultural landscape, I expect I’ll be telling more than a few rabid Hunger Games fans about how Snowpiercer is so much better and that I’m better for knowing it fairly soon.

Snowpiercer posterDirected by South Korea’s Bong Joon-Ho and starring Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton and John Hurt, Snowpiercer takes place almost entirely on a train containing the last dregs of the human race after an attempt to halt global warming backfired and caused the next ice age. The rich, affluent and corrupt get to stay at the front of the train, give themselves stupid hairstyles and dress like idiots while the noble working classes are exiled to the back end of the train, and forced to endure sensible haircuts and functional, stylish trench coats. Of course, this doesn’t sit well with Chris Evans’ character Curtis, who mounts a revolution to take the front of the train from the mysterious owner and his Thatcherish henchwoman played by Swinton.

I’d be hard pressed to think of another recent film that embraced a linear story structure so fervently as Snowpiercer. Of course, given the setting it’s hard not to. But still, just like Curtis’ mantra of always moving forward, once the revolution starts and the action kicks in, Snowpiercer only ever moves forward, never going back to previous locations and never staying in one place too long. There’s always a sense that things are going somewhere, a thrust in the story that never seems to stop until the last fifteen minutes or so. This isn’t one of those films that seems to wander or lose track of itself, it does a fantastic job at staying on point, at least until that ending.

The cast all outdo themselves, with special accolades going to Swinton and Evans. For the most part Evans is wearing out the “reluctant leader” trope until it’s down to a few clinging fibers, like the pair of underwear you keep forgetting to throw out. But towards the end during a moment of quiet Evans delivers what may be the best dramatic monologue I’ve seen him ever do. Tilda Swinton does exactly what we’ve all come to expect of Tilda Swinton at this point: completely vanish into a role to the point that the fact that she recently played an ethereal rock n’ roll vampire sex queen seems completely inconceivable. I don’t even know how it’s fucking possible that she played both Eve in Only Lovers Left Alive and the prim, sexless, post-apocalyptic Thatcherite shrew she plays here, but there she is, all false teeth and inch-thick glasses, as icy and villainous as Eve was sexual and beguiling.

The visuals are another major strong suit for the film, and as odd as this may sound coming from me, it’s one of the only films I’ve seen recently that makes shakeycam work. Things never seem so out of control that we can’t tell what’s happening, and Joon-Ho adds these quick little zooms to the mix to zero in on important elements. It’s an ingenious little solution to one of shakey-cam’s major problems, one that I can’t help but feel that lesser directors will try to emulate and ultimately misuse in the future.

Snowpiercer tilda

Where things get a big wobbly is the script, unfortunately. I have friends who tear their hair out at the most piddling little scientific inaccuracies in films, and Snowpiercer will probably have the lot of them looking like, well, me. But where as other films make these mistakes out of ignorance, I got the sense with Snowpiercer that it was more of a case of the allegory of the whole thing weighing down on the science of it like a fat man in the top of a bunk bed slowly crushing the person below them in the night.

Whenever a new piece of information comes our way about the workings of the train or the universe we’re in, odds are that a few perfectly plausible but much less allegorically interesting alternatives to that problem or design will occur to you immediately. I can’t help but feel that maybe Snowpiercer would have turned out a bit better if they’d just dropped any pretense at hard science fiction and gone full-on expressionist. The film is already pretty much Metropolis on a train, just go nuts with it.

But I can’t disparage Snowpiercer for just how damn cynical it is, towards not just the class inequality the whole thing is built around, but the uprisings and revolutions it seems at the outset to be espousing. The protagonists, as we learn, are hardly the saintly messianic figures we’ve come to expect from these kinds of dystopian shindigs. There are no heroes in the eyes of Snowpiercer, just people who the world hasn’t had a chance to fuck up yet, and maybe people marginally less fucked up than the people around them.

And even though it may be flawed, and goes a bit off the rails by the end (HAH, I didn’t even mean to make that one), it’s a hell of a fun ride and has more ideological teeth than all the Divergent Games and Hungry Givers you can mention, and that counts for a hell of a lot in my books.

The prospect of a Jim Jarmusch vampire movie doesn’t seem to make much sense at first, though in the exact way that usually gets me interested in a film. But it pays to remember that some of his best work (Ghost Dog and Dead Man in particular) has come from plugging his style into some unsuspecting genre, fusing cowboys or gangsters with Jarmusch’s particular mix of moody, atmospheric American Indie. It’s a strange kind of filmic alchemy that’s produced great films before, and Only Lovers Left Alive is nothing if not great.

Only Lovers posterVampires are often the subject for revisionism whenever they pop up these days. Someone always has to put some new spin on them, often ones that would make Joseph Sheridan le Fanu want to open his wrists. They can walk during the day, or drink colors or emotions or are made out of crystal. Jarmusch dispenses with that, delivering more or less true blue vampires, but where he makes it count is the subtext. The vampires of Jarmusch’s film are the tortured artists to end all tortured artists, Tom Hiddleston’s Adam in particular. Hiddleston, channeling 90s rockers with a fervor that borders on violence, spends much of the film swanning shirtless around a magnificently cluttered Detroit house, him and Tilda Swinton looking like they were carved out of alabaster. Adam recounts stories about lending musical insight to Schubert, and his wife regularly hangs out with Christopher Marlowe of all people, who on top of being a vampire, apparently wrote much of Shakespeare’s great works, if not all of them. Films about tortured, unappreciated intellectuals are nothing new to Jarmusch, but he seems to be going about it with a bit more tact this time that in something like The Limits of Control, or as I like to call it “The Assassination of America by Bohemian Intellectuals, a Power Fantasy in G-Minor”.

Jarmusch’s vampires aren’t about teen angst, forbidden love or disease, just being past your time and watching what contributions you’ve made to the world get knocked around, warped and reflected back, often in ways you don’t entirely like. They’re about watching a world you’ve tried to make better, or at least more beautiful, try its damndest to resist change, or change in all the wrong ways. Really, I think it’s about how good artists who die young have it lucky. How Morrison, Kobain and Hendricks would be miserable if they were alive today.

Often times, I’ve criticized movies for a lack of flow or cohesion, preferring my scripts taught and streamlined like a Lamborghini or a phallic symbol. Only Lovers Left Alive, in all fairness, would fall to this criticism if I weren’t familiar enough with Jarmusch’s work to recognize how much he seems to dig ponderous, wandering scripts, which Only Lovers has to such a degree that any real summary of the plot or story would almost feel like a lie. Really, it’s a mood piece more than an A to B narrative. The characters don’t have arcs or journeys so much as reactions to shit that happens to them. In a way, it reminds me a lot of Stranger Than Paradise. Both movies about listless outsiders wandering around life with clinical boredom and no thought toward growth or self-improvement. Both are about a sedentary existence come face to face with radical change by the sudden appearance of a female relative, both ending in a trip that turns out to be a much worse idea that it seemed at the outset. But what the film lacks (or perhaps disregards) in tight storytelling, it makes up for in mood. The camera glides around like a wraith as the soundtrack lets out mournful guitar wails and the characters float through the desolate Detroit landscape, cast in angry yellows and oranges by ancient street lamps. The film casts a haze over the viewer, a hypnotic awe so powerful I probably would have barked like a dog and given up my credit card number if somebody asked me while I was watching it.

Only Lovers John Hurt

Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are at the center of this, though, as Adam and Eve (ok, I admit, the naming is a bit lame), nailing down the air of aloof, otherwordly, detached ancients so firmly it would need a hacksaw and a strong constitution to escape. Hiddleston could act the whole thing with his lazy, measured body language alone, and Tilda Swinton’s swaggering and somehow predatory walk could have essays written about it. The supporting cast all perform admirably, but we all know who the stars here are. The always welcome Jeffrey Wright plays the inevitably offbeat midnight shift docter, and as much as the character seems cliched, I wanted to see more of him. Anton Yelchin is Adam’s only other human contact, a frazzle-haired rocker groupie, all nervous smiles and fidgets. John Hurt does what John Hurt does best, playing an ancient, sardonic old man for whom the word “incorrigible” was probably invented for when he was a young man. The only dark spot, or at least low point, is Mia Wasikowska as Eva, Eve’s younger sister and professional catalyst, who blows into the film to shatter Adam’s ordered world. She does fine as the wild, immature X-factor, but there doesn’t seem to be much to her beyond her role as an agent of change.

Only Lovers Left Alive is a deeply beautiful, sexy movie. It’s moody and angry, but with just enough hope for the future to not be totally nihilistic. It’s a vampire movie that’s only tangentially about vampires, which is really the best way to play it these days. More than that it’s about music and art and rock and roll and dying young. It’s beautifully shot, acted and scored, smoother than whale oil and dark and heady like a good stout. And yeah, I know I sound really pretentious right now. Jarmusch does that to me.