Jim Jarmusch’s most commercial film to date marks a departure for the director but also doesn’t offer a memorable viewing experience.
Some directors like to have fun – and there’s no problem with that. After several artsy films, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, this year’s opening film of the Cannes Film Festival, marks a commercial departure for the director especially after his most recent feature Patterson (also with Adam Driver).
Combing a realistic style, usually not followed for zombie films, Jarmusch selects the quiet town of Centreville, where life is quiet and the town folk are naïve and simple-minded, as the stage on which the events of the film unfold. Things take a turn when news outlets announce that planet earth has deviated from its axis, which has caused multiple disturbances in weather, sunlight and animal behavior. Soon after, zombies start to appear and things go haywire.
Why did Jarmusch pick a zombie film? That’s possibly a question that will pop up on most viewers’ minds, especially Jarmusch devotees, and for the first two thirds of the film it does seem like the director wants to have a bit fun with the genre, especially by embedding it in a small rural town where zombies would be the last thing to expect. By the film’s final third, the director offers some input on how zombies are metaphors for the current generation’s extreme hunger, consumerism and materialism.
It’s an interesting idea, yet underdeveloped just as several other storyline elements in the film. Rather than simply biting people to turn them into fellow zombies, the creatures in the film also utter words related to what they used to care about before leaving this world. Words such as Snickers, Snapple, Guitar, Fashion and more are uttered by the un-dead, as if their materialistic needs never die within them even if their bodies weaken and eventually wither.
The problem is that the film spends too much time with conventional, been-there-done-that tropes, such as countless slasher scenes and chases, to properly allow the story’s original take on zombies to properly take shape. Instead of focusing on how zombies are metaphorically relatable, the film spends more time with its characters trying to ‘kill the head’ which diminishes the freshness of the story. Viewers of the feature would have been much more engaged had the film characters been better developed. The three principal characters, from Centreville police, are thinly drawn and lack agency that can help viewers invest in them a bit more.
Perhaps the film’s most interesting performance is Tilda Swinton as a newly arrived manager of the town’s funeral services center. As with her recent characters, Swinton takes a one-dimensional, made-for-laughs character and turns it into something vastly entertaining, only to be let down by a script that doesn’t know what to do with her, especially as she abruptly leaves the film in an unconvincing scene that veers away from the realistic setting Jarmusch had attempted to keep the story in, followed by in-your-face explanations of how zombies are basically modern humans in constant hunger.
Technical credits, particularly the cinematography, is fantastic while the visual effects needed some polishing to be more convincing, especially in the chase scenes. While entertaining, The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t amount to a rewarding experience. Some will praise its fun approach, while others may feel let down by how slight it is. The question is how memorable the film will be in Jarmusch’s strong filmography.