2 out of 4 stars
In a 1989 interview, writer/director Jim Jarmusch said of his narrative style, “I’d rather make a movie about a guy walking his dog than the emperor of China.” The closest he’s gotten to either of those extremes is with “Paterson” from 2016 where the title character (Adam Driver) does walk a dog multiple times, among his other routine and uneventful daily events.
Indie and art house before they were actual terms, Jarmusch seems utterly unfazed at the prospect of remaining under the radar. Rarely have his films been seen by anyone beyond his cult base (many of which are well-known movie folk), but that might change with “The Dead Don’t Die.”
Making a zombie movie during what is arguably the best time in entertainment history to do so, with a dream cast and not-so-subtle political message right before the start of the 2020 election race, could be a combination audiences who have never even heard of Jarmusch won’t be able to resist.
If you are one of those people, take note of the “deadpan delivery” — Jarmusch’s calling card from day one — that sometimes turns people off. Much in the same manner of the twist in the final act of M. Night Shyamalan films, the flat, dry-as-the-desert, slightly off-kilter-paced dialogue in Jarmusch’s movies is omnipresent, whether called for or not. This isn’t a zombie movie made by Jarmusch, it’s a Jarmusch movie featuring zombies; he’s not going to alter his style because it might not work for the genre.
Set in a small town in what appears to be Pennsylvania, there is an almost immediate sense that something very odd and disquieting is going down. With the noted exception of sheriff’s deputy Mindy (Chloe Sevigny) — there is never any expression of fear, terror or impending doom exhibited by anyone.
Whether it is while being disemboweled, dismembered or eaten alive, no one panics or even gets close to using their outdoor voices. Never once is the suspension of disbelief established either. We’re always conscious we’re watching actors playing movie characters rather than people.
For 10 minutes or so Jarmusch’s “less is more” thing kind of works, thanks to Driver as second deputy Ronnie and Bill Murray as police chief Cliff. After a yawn-inducing encounter in the woods with future Greek chorus voice Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) Ronnie and Cliff are in their cruiser exchanging small talk and wondering why it is well past 8 at night yet the sun is still high in the sky. Their cellphones and watches don’t work, and neither does a police two-way radio. But once they get a terrestrial radio signal the tune playing on it is “The Dead Don’t Die” (by actual country singer Sturgill Simpson) which Ronnie loves because it is “the theme song.” The glib self-awareness starts in earnest and never lets up.
Nonstop nods toward many other zombie movies and filmmakers (especially George Romero) are dropped like narrative bread crumbs along the way, but not before the first two political jabs are dealt. Rosie Perez plays a local TV reporter explaining the sunlight change is due to “polar fracking” — the drilling for oil that is so intense it throws off the Earth’s axis. Steve Buscemi appears as Farmer Miller, and we know he’s a racist because his red and white hat has “Make America White Again” written on the front and he complains that coffee is too “black” for him. This gets no noticeable reaction from his friend and fellow diner patron Hank (Danny Glover) who has either gotten used to it or is too apathetic to get angry.
The lone jolt of anything interesting comes about 20 minutes in with the arrival of Zelda (Tilda Swinton), the town’s new funeral home director. Speaking with an accent Ronnie suspiciously identifies as Scottish, Zelda prays to a statue of Buddha while wielding a samurai sword (a la Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill”) and she moves with a gait so stiff and stilted she makes Nancy Pelosi look like Ginger Rogers.
Arriving shrouded in mystery and exiting in the same manner, Zelda is just the latest in a long string of parts only Swinton could play with both effortless ease and fierce commitment. This is the fourth Jarmusch movie featuring Swinton, and if he’s smart, he’ll offer her a fifth — a Zelda origin-to-close story.
Jarmusch saves his most heavy-handed sociopolitical observations for the final two minutes, which — considering his past talent for relative subtlety — is off the rails. One might say it will play well to the left when in reality it indicts the left and right, the poor and the wealthy, and it reeks of above-it-all artistic elitism and tsk-tsk proselytizing. It’s more fire and brimstone than observation and shows that when he wants to, Jarmusch can get all riled up and excited — and not a lick of it feels authentic or sincere.