In recent years, director Jim Jarmusch has slowed his cinema down to a point where it has reached a kind of drawling lethargy, and he has increasingly trained his lens on characters set apart from the frantic goings-on of the modern world. In 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive, his central pair of vampires were at a remove from our times, old half-ghosts hiding from daylight; and his Paterson was a sort of hermit finding poetry in the small things.
Now his world-weary characters are holed up as zombies emerge from their graves, and Tom Waits, playing a forest-dwelling vagabond, opines that the pure chaos has emanated from people wanting to “buy things”. The Dead Don’t Die’s pointed disdain towards modernity is among its least subtle elements, which is some achievement considering the film repeatedly breaks the fourth wall in search of easy laughs.
The movie takes place in Centerville, a small American town with its motel, diner and garage, its cops (Bill Murray and Adam Driver) and its small town grudges. At first, Jarmusch is in control and everything appears to be going well, with a few nicely shot opening sequences showcasing Jarmusch’s trademark deadpan. He introduces his host of characters deftly, although there are already worrying signs of glibness in, for instance, the cap that Steve Buscemi’s character sports, which says “Keep America White Again”. That smirking, facile tone builds and builds until it becomes the film’s lingua franca, infecting almost every scene.
In an early moment Driver’s dry police officer plays Sturgill Simpson’s title song on the car radio prompting Murray to ask why the song sounds familiar. “Because it’s the theme tune,” Driver laconically replies. This self-regard continues throughout, right up to a scene in which these same characters name-check Jarmusch and call him an “asshole”. Perhaps the film’s success depends on viewers’ ability to stomach this sort of winking.
So many other elements feel tired or contrived, such as the underwritten women – Chloë Sevigny as a tiresome, screaming cop whose stomach isn’t as strong as the guys’, or Selena Gomez’s sexy young ingenue, who gets lumbered with lines like, “Your film knowledge is impressive.”
Other elements are more successful, such as the film’s pert way with visual comedy: a scene of Driver in a Smart car is the very definition of film heaven, and Tilda Swinton dolling up two corpses in a morgue is also a delightful image. The movie’s vision of a world sent mad by ecological meltdown is welcome, if ultimately heavy-handed.
But so much is lifeless in this film, including its visual element. Lacking any scares of any kind – The Dead Don’t Die eschews these knowingly – the movie runs out of rhythm. Even less forgivably, it wholly underwrites three characters, maroons them without a storyline, and, finally, completely forgets about them. This is in line with a kind of roughness that the film flaunts, which could be appealing if not for a certain meanness of spirit in its vision. The pity in this ultimately vainglorious movie is that Jarmusch becomes complacent, falling back on specious conclusions that appease his knowing audience.