Meditative horror is a tricky thing to pull off. It is, by design, slow moving, repetitive, and driven by concept. Action is minimal. Dialogue is minimal. Everything is about the image, the mood, and the theme. Writer/director Jim Jarmusch manages all that while crafting one of the more ingenious vampire films to come around in some time. Adam (Tom Hiddleston), a reclusive rocker in Detroit, and Eve (Tilda Swinton), a literature lover, are a married couple living in isolation. They'll meet from time to time, only to separate for decades for fresh starts. Adam becomes so depressed in his isolation that Eve has no choice but to fly from Tangiers to reunite with her eternal husband.
Art and science drive Only Lovers Left Alive in a fabulous intersection of critical and creative thinking. Adam is not only an in-demand rock god; he's a brilliant scientist. There is a calculated element to every move he makes, especially his music. Everything is driven by pattern and repetition.
Eve is not a scientist, but she's well-read on the subject and knows her stuff. Her life is much more driven by art, love, and freedom. Her home is filled with thousands of books written in every language you can imagine. When she flies to Detroit, the only luggage she brings consists of two metal carry-on cases overstuffed with books. She wants to find new things to experience and new passions to ignite.
Adam and Eve fit together perfectly in this narrative. They fall into their familiar routine far too quickly, though. Eve becomes more distant as Adam begins to feel more comfortable again. Then Eve's little "sister" Ava (Mia Wasikowska, perfect again in a horror film) shows up and ruins everything with her impulsive decisions.
Only Lovers Left Alive hinges on layers of secrecy. Eve's closest friend in the world is Thomas Marlowe (John Hurt), now known by Kit. They discuss back and forth the merits of raising Shakespeare up to the status of a literary icon by giving him all the credit for Marlowe's work. At least, that's how they like to describe it. There's never any conclusive proof nor true ownership claimed by Marlowe in the film. Eve, an older vampire than Marlowe, thrives on the ripples of chaos that can be created with information, lies, and dirty little secrets.
The vampires shown in the film depend on an even deeper level of secrets. They all have their own special little supplier of the good stuff: pure O-Negative plasma lifted from hospitals with the aid of one doctor. Those who choose to hunt (the out-dated, rather than old-fashioned, way) face the risk of blood poisoning and death. Humans have poisoned themselves with disease, chemicals, and irresponsible behavior. Besides, the vampires need the plasma, not the water, that runs through our veins.
Strangely enough, the most trusting character in the film is Adam. He has an assistant he relies on to pick up all his toys for his recordings. Ian (Anthon Yelchin) will do anything for Adam. It's all about the music and if the artist needs a rare guitar from the 1950s with all original parts, the artist will get it. If he needs a custom-made wooden bullet encased in brass, he'll get that, too.
The Shakespearean references pop up from time to time in subtle ways. The narrative is driven by music that grows more prominent and public as the lovers are reunited. It is the "food of love" and Eve and Adam are enjoying a banquet together. Adam's music in particular is only meant for him and Eve; when other people listen, it's like their private lives are being ripped apart in the public square. Ava and Ian test this trust in each of their scenes and the results are quite disturbing.
What we have here is a vampire film presented by an auteur and stuffed to the gills with amazing actors and strong ideas. These are traditional vampires. They can only go out at night. They sleep all day. They drink blood to survive. They cannot eat or drink food. Their hair is long and unkempt and their frames are shockingly thin. The innovation here comes from context and subject matter.
No one touches on the benefits of Tesla in a horror film unless they're referencing that poor elephant Edison electrocuted as propaganda. Here, Tesla is a metaphor for control of power and pitted at odds with one of Einstein's proven quantum theories. It's all an exhilarating intellectual exercise wrapped in an unnerving slow-burn horror.