Pets are turning on their owners, mobile phones are losing power, day won’t turn to dusk, and the country-inflected strains of Sturgill Simpson’s ‘The Dead Don’t Die’ sound all too strangely familiar to Bill Murray’s Officer Cliff Robertson. What is going on in the sleepy town of Centerville in Middle America? And why is Hermit Bob at the forefront of everyone’s mind?
There are certain filmmakers whose catalogue oozes charisma and cool, making each forward step a source of perpetual curiosity. Wild-haired filmmaking maestro Jim Jarmusch – he of Broken Flowers, Only Lovers Left Alive, Dead Man et al – has long carved a career out of wilfully offbeat material. Maybe it is a sign o’ the times, but his brand of daring disobedience to the rules of convention has resulted in this latest effort, The Dead Don’t Die, cutting the ribbon to launch Cannes 2019.
If you have a phone book that boasts the likes of Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Tilda Swinton, Adam Driver and Bill Murray among its numbers and you have an idea for a zombie movie, then you would be crazy not to throw the idea out there and see if they are game for some B-movie thrills. He has most certainly done that here, tossing them all together, whipping up some wry asides and self-aware quips into a seductive, tasty mix.
Some of the best moments here are the most absurd. The stereotype of backwater townsfolk exhumed by Steve Buscemi as he perches himself at the bar of a diner supping coffee with a red baseball cap declaring ‘Make America White Again’, for example. Or observing Iggy Pop jolting out from the grave like a wounded, almost stop-motion Mick Jagger to wreak havoc. Or Tilda Swinton: her Scottish accent may wander from the Scottish border from time to time, but her overall performance is far more deliciously unhinged than her much-anticipated turn as Madame Blanc in Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria last year.
There’s space for politics too. News from transistor radio and TV stations say that polar fracking has turned the earth on its axis. In response, the establishment aggressively decries protests to halt activity as no more than specious speculation and unfounded claims from “so-called scientists”. It is an acute, if unsubtle, dig at the climate-change deniers and the modern-day mud-throwing between the left and the right. Nice one, Jim.
That said, and this might need to be whispered quietly, but it is arguable that the overall currency of JJ’s canon is greater than the sum of its parts – and so too this may end up being the residual impression of The Dead Don’t Die. After the muted strains of Paterson, Jarmusch has dialled the volume up a number of notches in this star-strewn zombie outing. But star wattage and style alone does not a good movie make. There is much to admire in fleeting passages here, but it is hard to shake the feeling that Cannes 2019 opened with a colourful confection, not bereft of enjoyment, but ultimately signifying little.