The Dead Don’t Die
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
DVD, Amazon Prime, Vudu, Google Play, YouTube
JIM JARMUSCH’s latest feature The Dead Don’t Die (2019) is arguably his most commercial effort yet, a fairly big-budgeted production* with high-profile cast — working I’m guessing for scale or free — and opening wide in the USA, around 600 theaters.
And I suppose the film is a disappointment. It’s casually shot, mainly extended footage of Adam Driver’s Officer Ronnie Peterson and Bill Murray’s Officer Cliff Robertson (?!) driving through their little town of Centerville, and perhaps the most interesting concept about the film’s offhand look is that everything including the outdoor scenes looks dimmed, as if someone had put filters on the sun; if anything the night scenes are more vividly lit, brute spots tight on specific areas surrounded by inky black.
The acting is even more inconsistent: there are times when the cast is on Jarmusch’s groove, tossing off conventional dialogue in a conventional fashion that sound bizarre because of context (“Did she just say ‘Chardonnay?’”); there are times when you sense the actors fidgeting because the camera’s still rolling and they’re wondering when Jarmusch is going to yell “Cut!” Or if he’s ever going to yell.
Even the premise sounds half-baked — polar fracking causing the Earth’s rotation to change? Granted climate change is real and may actually be contributing to a change in the earth’s axis, and granted fracking is a thing, has even been known to cause earthquakes — combining the two phenomena sounds like the product of an extended pot session, maybe something stronger.
Perhaps the earliest hint I had that the director seems more distracted than usual was in the scene where the police arrive at a diner to investigate dead bodies. Cliff walks in and looks around. “Wild animals?” he’s asked. Ronnie arrives, does the same. Officer Mindy (Chloe Sevigny) — their third colleague — repeats the action yet one more time. I thought leaving the camera waiting outside while each officer stepped in and out would’ve been funnier… but Jarmusch had to to go through the motions (plod in, look, plod out) thrice; his attention seemed focused on other priorities — whatever they are even after watching the film I’m still not quite sure.
As early as Stranger Than Paradise and as late as Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch seemed gifted with the ability to frame his characters and stage his action with an Ozulike elegance — like they’re stranded in all these bleak open spaces, trying to suss out what they’re supposed to do with their lives.
Well, the folks in Stranger are trying to suss; the vampires in Only Lovers are past caring — perhaps the best they can hope for (though they refuse to admit it) is death.
That elegance seems missing here. In its place are obscure allusions and intricate in-jokes (Cliff Robertson? Ronnie Peterson? A tombstone marked “Sam Fuller”? A naked zombie straight out of Night of the Living Dead — played by the same actress?). You wonder if perhaps Jarmusch was trying to keep himself amused throughout the shoot.
Other odd details: having the zombies exhale black dust instead of squirting putrified bodily fluids feels like a cheat, if only because Jarmusch doesn’t seem averse to showing bloodied wounds or exposed viscera (he just doesn’t want extensive splatter). A stylistic choice, first time in any zombie movie as far as I know, but it seems like a lot to explain — and of course Jarmusch doesn’t even bother.
And yet it’s difficult to dislike the picture. If Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead is a passionately wrought parody of zombie movies, Jarmusch’s is a more shrugging what-the-hell subversion, the attitude at least as interesting (or uninteresting if you’re not a fan) as the execution — his opinion if you like of the genre in general (though he does profess an affection for voodoo zombies, and for George Romero).
I understand the feeling. Robert Altman’s Ready to Wear is generally condemned for being a slapdash satire of the world of fashion but I thought (not being particularly enthusiastic or knowledgeable about couture) it was exactly the kind of satire the industry deserved. Lazy criticism? Yes, but it’s how I feel.
Beyond the genre disdain you sense something more — a dissatisfaction with the status quo, a frustration with being surrounded by shadowy threats and general confusion, a desire to cleanse the world — or at least rid it of detritus — and start again.
Striding into the film is Tilda Swinton’s Scottish undertaker Zelda Winston. She looks and feels like she walked in from a whole other movie, moving (and on occasion posing) with an elegance that recalls earlier Jarmusch. And what does she do (Skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven’t seen the film!)? Ride a Smart car through the rest of the apocalypse into a field where she’s picked up by an alien spaceship. Says pages I think about where the director really wants to be; punchline is he directs an entire feature film to tell us all about it, scored to Sturgill Simpson’s theme song made specifically for the picture.
One of the best films of the year? It’s more complicated than that. I like it a lot; I like the shambling random pointlessness, which is apparently the point. I find it funnier than most recent movies that profess to be a comedy, but I suspect I’m bringing a lot of how I think and feel into the theater with me.
* Can’t find figures doing a casual online search, but if the marketing cost $3 million I’m guessing the budget is of comparable size.