The Dead Don't Die July 22, 2019
Caleb Landry Jones
1 Hr., 43 Mins.
mall-town police officers Ronnie and Cliff (Adam Driver and Bill Murray) can tell something’s wrong in their native Centerville for a handful of reasons. While driving to the station following a near-violent skirmish with the town hermit (Tom Waits), they notice that the clock reads 8:20 p.m. even though it looks like it’s a little past noon outside. It isn’t daylight savings, either. Ronnie’s phone, which has been
fully charged the whole day, is suddenly stone-cold dead. Radio calls from the department’s other officer, Mindy (Chloë Sevigny), dip in and out as if the town was suddenly a wind tunnel. Pets have begun retreating to the shadows, turning feral whenever someone so much as tries to command them to come here. Something wrong with the electricity, some other technology? Is a spot of bad weather imminent?
In The Dead Don’t Die (2019), the latest project from Jim Jarmusch, these are all portents of an impending George A. Romero-style zombie apocalypse. It’s been brought on by what Jarmusch comically refers to as “polar fracking,” a well-stimulation technique so intense and invasive that it’s irreparably confused the Earth’s axis. Conservatives on television and the radio continue denying its scientifically backed effects. The economic benefits are too great.
“This isn’t going to end well,” the stone-faced Ronnie says over and over again in The Dead Don’t Die, a zom-com with a political edge. Fitting, because while the film indeed doesn’t end happily, the line is also appropriate for a movie that eventually proves itself a sloppy one. Midway through the movie, which has more in common with the exuberant Zombieland (2009) than it does with the dark Night of the Living Dead (1969), I was convinced that even though Jarmusch had done a great deal of effective world-and character-building up until now, he probably hadn’t really thought or cared about how the movie would end.
The finale is a bleak, scribbled children’s drawing that includes, if you can believe it, an alien abduction. It probably makes for Jarmusch’s way of saying “nothing matters” — a maxim the film recurrently says with feeling. But in a movie whose cynicism grows increasingly patronizing (everything here works toward the allegorical message that we’re all zombies — slaves of materialism, capitalism, other systems), a final bit so thinly put together drives home the idea that while Jarmusch has some perhaps valuable ideas about the modern world, he isn’t interested enough in forming an endnote that makes him sound like more than an old fogey.
That The Dead Don’t Die is bookended by a slipshod finale is disappointing, especially since most else about the film is playful and funny. Some of what we see and hear is the closest Jarmusch, whose sense of humor has remained blithe and dry 30-something years after his feature-length debut, has come to out-and-out slapstick. It also, for the most part, does well as a meditation on small-town living, a showcase for amusing, odd-bird performances courtesy of many of Jarmusch’s long-time collaborators, and an exercise in meta-comedy. Jarmusch might have wanted us to pay more attention to the main parable and to his rib-tickling mocking of zombie-movie tropes. But the smaller details in The Dead Don’t Die are what count, not so much its bigger, broader ideas.
enterville’s population comprises less than 800 people. Its welcome sign merrily and vaguely calls it “a real nice place.” The Dead Don't Die was shot in Fleischmanns, a town about 140 miles away from New York City, and in the movie does Jarmusch bring to life what tangibly looks and feels like any small American town that could be picked out of a top hat. There’s only one diner, one gas station, one hotel, etc.; we get to know
its key inhabitants well enough before the zombie stuff gets going. People appear to be less friends and more members of a big, makeshift family. Everyone seems lonely; not a couple is seen. (Living couple, that is.) The first undead-related death stings because we get acquainted with the victims beforehand. One is the woman who runs the sole restaurant; the other is a loquacious custodian who just started working at the fucking weird new undertaker’s (Tilda Swinton) place. We get an idea of relationships, world views. When a trio of Ohio-based “hipsters” (played by an attractive trio made up by Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, and the Instagram influencer Luka Sabbat), it’s treated as something of an event.
We’re also privy to some of these peoples’ politics. Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi) always wears a “Make America Great Again”-style hat, only it says “Make America White Again.” He doesn’t understand that you can’t wear such a cap and also try to make nice with someone like hardware store-owner Hank (Danny Glover), who’s black. Ronnie is a tone-deaf liberal who speaks, apropos of next-to-nothing, of having an affinity for Mexicans. The Waits-portrayed marabout is isolationism personified. Kids pent up in the local juvie, like so many members of Generation Z, have more common sense than their full-grown counterparts — feels right in the world in which they’re having to grow up. Centerville, despite being so comically generalizable, is plausible.
The performances in The Dead Don’t Die, in a lot of ways, add up to create something more consequential than what the narrative offers. Waits, in a smart feat of casting, works as a canny observer; his sporadic narration evokes his music. Caleb Landry Jones, as the movies-and comics-obsessed gas-station owner, excels as the sensitive and outcasted introvert, offering a movie so droll unexpected heart. Driver is a maven of deadpan comedy, used by Jarmusch much of the time as the person most often bringing out the film’s meta quirks.
The actor particularly makes an impression because of how often he gets tangled in that meta-comedy, which is the movie's most inspired characteristic. Most of it is colored by in-film commentary reminiscent of the kind you'd find in the works of Jim Henson or Kevin Williamson. The title song, by Sturgill Simpson, is the only music we hear in the movie. Whenever the track plays, someone either goes “I love this song” or “I hate this song”; Driver’s character goes as far as saying that he likes it, in part, because it’s the theme of the movie. It’s sold all around the town, in single form. Many of the characters are jokily named. Driver’s character’s surname is Peterson, which is a nod to the fact that he played the eponymous character in Jarmusch’s last movie, Paterson (2016). Rosie Perez, who plays a newscaster, is called Posie Juarez. Swinton is Zelda Winston. UPS is retitled WUPS. Iggy Pop, who sort of looks like a zombie anyway, with his stringy blond hair and hound-dog features, is the first undead person we see in the movie.
Swinton makes for the movie’s most obvious personified marriage between quirky performance and meta-theatricality. So often is the actress viewed as something of an alien by the public at large. In The Dead Don’t Die, Jarmusch ups the ante on her weirdness. Here she’s a Scottish, katana-wielding undertaker with ghost-white skin and ghost-white hair who robotically refers to people by their first and last names. She walks around the town like a Sim, sharply turning corners and making withering, unblinking eye contact with anyone she's speaking with. She’s freakily good at coding; she appears to actually give off electricity whenever in close proximity to a desktop computer. If there’s a reason to see the movie, it doesn't have to do with Jarmusch giving us his take on the zombie feature. It has all to do with Swinton. She's clearly having fun challenging the limits imposed by convention.
The crooked comedy and acting still don’t say much when together — not a lot unlike the story and its accompanying messages. But they’re winning enough to make me want to see Jarmusch do more genre movies, maybe with the allegorical ideas more developed next time. (Its most obvious predecessor in Jarmusch’s filmography is 2013’s terrific vampire movie Only Lovers Left Alive, which fortunately reveled more in its comic idiosyncrasies than any operatic messages.) The film, by its end, makes for a collection of exceptional performances and jokes strung together by an allegory whose center doesn’t hold. B