Monday 16 September 2019

Yawn of the dead

Stellar cast can’t save Jim Jarmusch’s genre-bending zombie tribute

Adam Driver is one of many A-list stars
Adam Driver is one of many A-list stars

Tanya Sweeney

Jim Jarmusch may have a singular cinematic style - think brooding, blackly humorous and slouchy of pace - but his CV runs the entire gamut. He's done Westerns (Dead Man), mob movies (Ghost Dog) and vampire films (Only Lovers Left Alive).

For his latest opus, he's taking genre-bending to entirely new heights. Take a cop drama, chuck in some zombies, bone-dry comedy, kung-fu and season with a cheeky sprinkling of postmodernism. In any case, we start off in sleepy Centerville, on the night shift for cops Cliff (Bill Murray) and Ronnie (Adam Driver).

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After admonishing Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) for breaking the peace, the only thing left to worry about is the corpse of the local drunk Mallory (Carol Kane), currently lying in situ in the station's cells. Even though it's the night shift, the sun still blazes high in the sky, and for good reason.

Polar fracking has popped the earth off its axis, enabling all sorts of weird goings on. More pertinently, it permits the dead to live again, or at least be undead again, as zombies. Some, like Iggy Pop's grey-skinned walker, are hungry for coffee and waitress guts; others crave Wi-Fi, fashion, Xanax and tennis - the things, essentially, that they loved when they were alive.

As the body count climbs, the two cops, along with Cliff's deputy Mindy (Chloe Sevigny), have a job on their hands keeping the town under control. Enter Zelda (Tilda Swinton), a Scottish funeral home director wielding a samurai sword with the assured insouciance of a Japanese warrior. And, from the comic book nerd Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones) to the local waitress Fern (Eszter Balint), the town is bursting with colourful characters.

There's a hefty helping of political polemic in the mix too: Steve Buscemi's odious Farmer Bob proudly sports a 'Make America White Again' cap and has a dog named Rumsfeld. One local, upon getting mauled by a pack of zombies, shrieks 'refugees!' before the death rattle takes hold. All very zesty and contemporary, but in a film that's stylistically scattergun to begin with, the political winks mean there's way too much going on.

Selena Gomez
Selena Gomez

Jarmusch sets the film up with a nimble and droll script, not to mention the dream comic pairing of Murray and Driver. And, even without a cast pockmarked with stars, a stylistic mash-up of Three Billboards and Dawn of the Dead is a rather fine starting point for any project.

Alas, things start to rip at the seams of The Dead Don't Die midway through. Jarmusch's nod to the zombie genre is so faithful as to be verging on predictable. There's the grizzled hand reaching out of the gravel; the hordes of fright-wigged and drooling cadavers shuffling into the night. Things eventually take a turn so wacky that a strong suspension of disbelief is required.

Finally, Jarmusch breaks the fourth wall when Cliff and Ronnie refer to the end of the script (Ronnie received the end of the script, Cliff didn't, leading him to deem Jarmusch a d***). It's bold, but not all that clever.

The Dead Don't Die's strongest point, arguably, is its ensemble cast: a who's who of Jarmusch alumni. Murray has been a faithful collaborator of the director's for years; Driver a relative newcomer to his stable of muses. Swinton is mesmerising and warmly funny as samurai sword-wielding Zelda. Sevigny's sexy froideur rarely translates on screen, but here her descent into a shrieking emotional wreck results in a full-body cringe for the viewer. Danny Glover, Carol Kane, Tom Waits, RZA, Iggy Pop, Rosie Perez, Selena Gomez - no one can ever say that Jarmusch can't pull together an intriguing cast.

The director has long been known for a sort of off-kilter whimsy that made films like Broken Flowers and Paterson such cinematic beauties. For reasons best known to himself, Jarmusch has decided to pay homage to (or play about with) genre cinema, just as he did with the vampire genre in 2013's Only Lovers Left Alive.

Yet in The Dead Don't Die, the nods to more conventional cinema tropes mean that Jarmusch's special something gets lost in the mix. Where his previous outing Paterson (2016) was low on plot, but cinematically rich on the lips, this latest offering is a film attempting subversion, yet suffering from identity crisis. Jarmusch says it best when he says nothing at all. The sooner he comes to this realisation, the better.

The Dead Don't Die

(15A, 104 mins)



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A spry, likeable take on the buddy-cop classic, Stuber kicks off in time-honoured fashion when officer Vic (Dave Bautista) loses his partner Sara (Karen Gillen) in a shootout. Hell-bent on avenging her death, Vic picks up an Uber for an extended misadventure across town. The driver of said Uber is Stu (Kumail Nanjiani), an average guy who is keen not to let his driver rating

fall below four stars. A zingy script is brought to life by Nanjiani, arguably the comedic backbone of the whole movie. We’ve seen it all before, but Nanjiani makes a parade of clichés more watchable than you think.

Irish Independent

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