Most, if not all, of Jim Jarmusch’s films have been about futility: about characters who do nothing or characters who do something that leads nowhere. Though he’s tackled genre within that framework in the past (vampire films with Only Lovers Left Alive, spy thrillers with the bafflingly obtuse The Limits of Control), a strict avoidance of tropes has always been de rigueur. In the last few years, the films have also been increasingly about celebrating the things that he likes – poetry, music, guitars, countries, icons… his films have always been fetishistic to some extent, obsessed with his own private mind garden in a way that few filmmakers have exploited so consistently. Even his documentary about The Stooges, ostensibly the most surface-level and accessible of his films, essentially boiled down to a scrapbook reflecting his own obsessive love of the band.
The announcement that Jarmusch was working on a zombie movie suggested that it was based, like all the films he’s made recently, on Jarmusch’s own love of zombie movies. It was certainly not far-fetched to expect that Jarmusch would deconstruct the genre to the point of rendering it unrecognizable, but his career nevertheless bears out that it would serve as a springboard for his own obsessions and fandoms. Alas, The Dead Don’t Die seems to be the first film that Jarmusch made to explore the things he hates rather than the films he loves. It’s less a celebration of the genre than a calculated appropriation of a popular genre to make pithy, fairly unoriginal observations about the world we live in. It’s still a Jim Jarmusch movie, make no mistake – but for the first time in his career, Jarmusch feels less like a cool, detached, ageless beacon of hipness and more like an old man yelling at a cloud. (Perhaps even The actual Cloud.)
Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and officers Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and Minnie Morrison (Chloë Sevigny) represent the entirety of the police force of Centerville, a sleepy little rural burg in which nearly nothing of any import happens. While doing their regular rounds (which mostly involves chastising a forest-dwelling hobo played by Tom Waits), they discover that things are askew – their watches no longer work, and the sun doesn’t seem to set at the usual time. Hours later, they come upon the gravest crime ever perpetuated in Centerville – two waitresses at the local diner are found butchered, which they soon thereafter link to worldwide reports of the dead coming back to life.
Most of The Dead Don’t Die unfolds in pretty much exactly the way you’d expect from the combination of director and subject: slack, low-key one-liners from an underplaying cast, bits of self-conscious badassery, a cameo-laden supporting cast, a droney psych score from Jarmusch’s own musical project SQURL, recurrent shoutouts to one of Jarmusch’s current musical obsessions (this time it’s far-out country musician Sturgill Simpson, who sings the film’s title song and is discussed at length in the film) and constant barbs outlining the futility of what’s happening on-screen. Very early on in the film, Driver’s character figures out that they’re in the throes of a zombie invasion and posits that it won’t end well; then, throughout the film, he constantly breaks the fourth wall to comment on how things unfolded in the script that Jarmusch gave him. Somewhere in the middle, The Dead Don’t Die has a meta-reflexive breakdown and becomes less a Jim Jarmusch zombie film and more of a reflection on what a Jim Jarmusch movie zombie movie would look like. It’s cheeky but not particularly successful, particularly because Jarmusch seems so cynical about the proceedings.
Part of it is just the lackadaisical tone of the humour, propelled by Bill Murray in particularly laid-back form. Part of it is how obvious and well-trod this territory is, having already been explored in every imaginable way by hundreds of comedic zombie movies in the past. Based on what makes it into the finished film, it doesn’t seem like Jarmusch has seen much beyond the original Romero trilogy, and he ultimately goes over the same material as everyone else who thinks they were skewering the genre. Most off-putting of all? He has plenty of time to shoehorn in terrible boomer jokes, like zombies shuffling with cell phones in hand moaning “wiiiifiiiiii” and other social observations culled from super-artifacted memes shared by our parents on social media. Jarmusch has spent his entire 30+ year career seeming so effortlessly cool and yet consciously out-of-step with the times, it’s not that surprising that he would one day make the inevitable old-man movie. It still hurts when it happens, though.
It’s undeniable that I am perpetually 100% in the pocket for Jim Jarmusch. The things that he loves and admires are also the things I love and admire – in many respects, precisely because of Jarmusch. Even the worst Jim Jarmusch movie (which remains The Limits of Control) has my heart, and there’s plenty to love in The Dead Don’t Die. The sheer power of the cast amassed here (which also includes Steve Buscemi, Selena Gomez, Iggy Pop, RZA, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Rosie Perez and Carol Kane) is enough to keep things moving, and there’s plenty of funny stuff between the more cringeworthy old-dudeisms. (Jarmusch suddenly seems to think the word hipster is very funny – perplexing considering that this has more or less always been the first descriptor applied to his own work.) What most disappoints me about The Dead Don’t Die is how resigned it seems – how much of it doesn’t seem to be born out of the things that Jarmusch loves but rather of the things he feels he should be giving the audience. There’s a resigned, “is THIS what you want?!” feel to some of it that’s just a huge bummer. The rest of it? Well, it’s still a Jim Jarmusch movie. ■
The Dead Don’t Die is in theatres Friday, June 14. Watch the trailer here: