With every movie, even in a Marvel movie, Tilda Swinton keeps making you think: “This is the most quintessentially Tilda Swinton role.” With her ethereal – yet extraterrestrial – air, she’s been cast in one out-there part after another till you think she can’t top that anymore. But just wait till you see how she out-Tilda Swintons herself in Jim Jarmusch’s new zombie movie, which opened the Cannes Film Festival: The Dead Don’t Die. (Without the definite article, the alliteration would’ve worked wonderfully well.) She plays a small-town mortician. And she’s Scottish. And she wields a samurai sword most excellently. And she’s a Star Wars fan. (“It’s excellent fiction,” she remarks. You don’t get the full import of this statement until the end.) And, in her last scene, she gets a send-off that’s just right for a Tilda Swinton character. The scene appears tacked on, at first. But thinking back, it fits. At the risk of a spoiler, let me just say that no one in their right mind would want to stick around on earth, not after what we’ve done to the planet.
Like all self-respecting zombie movies, The Dead Don’t Die is animated by an allegory. Due to continued fracking in the North Pole, the earth has tilted on its axis. To keep up our rapacious consumption patterns, we keep plundering the planet – and there’s going to be a time when the planet can’t take it anymore. That’s when the apocalypse begins. That’s when the zombies will crawl out of their graves. These themes have been around since George Romero made his seminal zombie movies, but it’s surprising how effective they still are, especially with the touch of dazed melancholy Jarmusch layers on like glaze on a doughnut. (You may recall the emotion from Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch’s swoony take on the vampire movie.) He defines these creatures with a singular, sickly touch: each zombie keeps repeating the name of (and going after) the one thing it craved most while alive. “Coffee”. “Chardonnay”. “Fashion”. And, in a funny-yet-sad touch, “Free wi-fi”. To see these zombies walking around stiltedly, eyes glued to their smartphone screens, is a reminder that we don’t necessarily have to be dead in order to be, well, undead.
But just wait till you see how she out-Tilda Swintons herself in this zombie movie. She plays a small-town mortician. And she’s Scottish. And she wields a samurai sword most excellently. And she’s a Star Wars fan.
Despite a Romero name-drop and the genre trappings – hands popping out from beneath a headstone, the Thriller makeup and walk, “rules” for killing the undead – The Dead Don’t Die is not exactly a genre film. I saw it more as a wry meditation on death (of a people, of a planet). This subtext begins with the film’s beginning – a scene of a car crossing a cemetery – and proceeds to the next scene, with a dead chicken. The quaintly named town, Centerville, is dead. It barely has some 700 people, and when a cop (Cliff, played by Bill Murray) requests his deputy (Chlöe Sevigny) to “help with the crowd control”, he’s talking about three people who have gathered outside a crime scene. The staging is “dead”, too. Deadpan, really. Despite the potential for tense set pieces, there’s no hysteria. Everyone acts like they’ve seen many zombie movies and know what to expect. And in a meta touch, Cliff’s partner Ronnie (Adam Driver) acts like he’s seen this zombie movie as well. When the theme song we heard over the opening credits plays on the radio (with lyrics like “After life is over / the afterlife goes on”), he knows it’s this film’s theme song. And he’s read the whole script, too. Cliff says “Jim” showed him only his scenes.
This distancing device – it’s too slight and mannered to be called “comedy” – makes the characters paper-thin and ultra-disposable. They become “types”. Steve Buscemi, for instance, plays the “redneck type”. He carries a shotgun, has a dog named Rumsfeld, and wears a (red) cap with the slogan: “Keep America White Again”. This kookiness kept reminding me of the Coen brothers. Tom Waits plays Hermit Bob, who sees birds taking flight and offers this grim pun: “That’s what I call a murder of crows.” Even Cliff’s lines are Coens-esque, but that’s also Murray, who’s the emperor of glum archness. He delivers a line like “That happens to be against the law” with downward inflection as he gets to “law” – he sounds less like a stentorian cop than a bored civics teacher. The mix of subverted genre and dry commentary and Jarmuschian uneventfulness doesn’t always work. But even minor movies can work on some levels, and it’s easy to see what Jarmusch is after. The only ones who will survive are those like Hermit Bob, who lives in the woods, away from consumerist civilisation, “like a caveman”. The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t sting hard enough to be a message movie. But that may be its secret strength.
Alejandro González Iñárritu – the 2019 Cannes jury president, and the first Latin-American filmmaker to hold this honour – said something rather beautiful about his role here: “I do not call it judgment [on the movies]. I want to be impregnated by them.” I think he’s going to get teased about this statement (it’s made for memes), but it’s the kind of passion you wish more filmmakers and film watchers had. Making love to the moving image, taking home its seed, nurturing that seed to flower and become a set of thoughts (or a review) about the film… Wow! I’d never thought of film viewing through the lens of this metaphor. We’ve heard of being “pregnant with a thought” or “pregnant with an idea”. I rather like the notion of being pregnant with a movie.