Cannes 2019, Day 2: Waking the dead and putting the living to sleep
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After a glitzy red carpet, the Cannes Film Festival soon slipped back into a torpor as Jim Jarmusch opened the competition and ended the world with his droll, lethargic Zombie satire, “The Dead Don’t Die”.
And so it all begins with the end of the world. As the curtain rose on the festival’s opening night, Planet Earth was knocked off its axis, time froze, day and night switched over – and the dead rose from their graves. It was all too obviously a man-made apocalypse caused by polar fracking, with Trumpian officials dismissing the evidence as “alarmist” talk. As if to prove the point, Cannes’ blazing sunshine gave way to a chilly rain after the screening, the first of several showers and storms expected to dampen the party mood this year. Mercifully, “The Dead Don’t Die” serves up a distinctly Jarmuschian end of the world, meaning it’s actually pretty cool.
Guiding us through the bloodbath with imperturbable nonchalance are Cliff and Ronnie (Bill Murray and Adam Driver), a deadpan duo of bespectacled officers whose job is to keep the peace in sleepy Centerville, a “real nice town” located somewhere in America's Northeast. The two cops spend most of the time coasting up and down Centerville’s only road, never meeting traffic, and debating when to have coffee and donuts at the local diner. Their only minor hassle is keeping an eye on Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), a reclusive woodland tramp who is regularly accused of stealing chickens from MAGA-cap-wearing “asshole” Farmer Miller (Steve Bushemi). But soon enough they find themselves fending off a horde of flesh-eating zombies with guns, axes and machetes, without batting an eyelid.
The star-studded cast, many of them Jarmusch regulars, includes Danny Glover as a very likeable mechanic, an excellent Caleb Landry Jones as the geeky gas station worker with guns and comics in his all-purpose store, Chloë Sevigny as a third cop whose only real purpose is to play the woman-in-distress trope, and Tilda Swinton as an improbable Scottish samurai coroner – somehow she pulls it off, as only she could – with some very eccentric makeup tastes for post-mortems. Speaking of makeup, the staggering undead hordes are maculated in classic zombie-movie fashion – with the exception of Iggy Pop, who, in a brilliant casting choice, looks rather like himself.
While most of the folks seem somewhat clueless about what is afoot, Hermit Bob can read the signs of impending doom: ants in a frenzy, cows running amok, bird swarms going all Hitchcockian. Soon enough he comes across a discarded copy of Melville’s Moby Dick, as if to warn us foolish mortals that Noah’s flood has not yet subsided. Because he is removed from our materialistic society, he can see through its zombifying effects. The undead behave much like the living, drawn like magnets to the consumer goods and habits that absorbed them in life: coffee, fashion, WiFi and Xanax. The implication is that we’ve been zombies all along, sleeping through the impending doom.
Hermit Bob aside, it’s the younger characters who display at least some awareness of what is going on, including Ronnie, who knows a thing or two about the script and how “this isn’t going to end well”. Somehow, this sleepy town of 739 inhabitants is also home to a juvenile detention centre, where adolescents look in dismay at news broadcasts about the climate disaster cooked up by their elders (and the lies spread by the government). And then there’s Selena Gomez, heading a trio of “hipsters from Cleveland” who appear to be looking for an escape from this ghastly world. But Jarmusch is hardly intent on investing the younger generations with any hope of reversing the apocalypse. The mood here is laconic resignation, almost nihilistic, made just about bearable by a copious dose of wry humour.
“The Dead Don’t Die” is being promoted in France with the tagline, "A Cast to Raise the Dead", and that is indeed its main attraction. As always with this indie director beloved of Cannes, his latest work is quaint, elegant and droll, animated by quietly expressive performances and a beautiful score. But it is also surprisingly unimaginative and indulgent, and neither as funny nor as entertaining as the trailer suggests. It lacks both the grace of Jarmusch’s gently moving “Paterson”, which premiered here in 2016, and the originality, sensibility and nostalgic end-of-an-era atmosphere of his 2013 vampire movie, “Only Lovers Left Alive”. I thought it would have made an excellent short. Instead it drifts along aimlessly, and often dangerously close to the soporific.