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Jim Jarmusch's 'The Dead Don't Die' starts Cannes off on an apocalyptic note

Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

CANNES, France -- The 72nd Festival de Cannes began Tuesday with a vision of the end.

In "The Dead Don't Die," Jim Jarmusch's bleak, bone-dry shrug of a horror-comedy, Adam Driver, Bill Murray and Chloe Sevigny play small-town police officers fending off a zombie apocalypse. There's little ambiguity about what caused the epidemic, and even less about what it represents. A culture of moral idiocy and capitalist greed, signaled by a huge uptick in "polar fracking," has fatally shifted the Earth's rotational pattern. Now the sun takes forever to set, radio signals have gone haywire and the dead are rising up from their graves to feast on the flesh of the living.

There's something to be said for kicking off the world's most prestigious film festival with a bloody aperitif, especially one served up by one of the festival's favorite sons. With "The Dead Don't Die," Jarmusch has pioneered his own sub-subgenre: the undeadpan comedy. His dialogue scenes are as drawn-out and poker-faced as ever. When two diner employees are brutally disemboweled -- the movie spares us very little -- the people of Centerville (population 738) respond with more confusion than panic. The movie milks their comic bewilderment for all it's worth, which isn't terribly much.

Driver's cop turns out to be the town's resident genre scholar, at one point invoking George Romero, whose aesthetic signature is apparent in the movie's old-school, slow-shuffling zombie hordes. They're nothing like the fast-moving denizens of "World War Z" or the armed-to-the-teeth White Walkers of "Game of Thrones," but what else would you expect from Jarmusch, never one to hurry a scene along? (The director's major stylistic innovation: the nifty clouds of ash that emerge whenever his zombies are shot in the head or decapitated.)

The Romero references are hardly the only blatant wink-wink moments. In addition to Murray and Driver, the ensemble is crawling with Jarmusch collaborators. Tom Waits plays a bearded hermit. Iggy Pop is a zombie with a caffeine addiction. Whenever Tilda Swinton appears as a mortuary cosmetologist with a rigid gait, a samurai sword and a thick Scottish brogue, the movie gleefully shifts gears -- even genres -- to become a tone poem on the inscrutable Zen weirdness of Tilda Swinton. Selena Gomez, Luka Sabbat and Austin Butler play out-of-town visitors who are unflatteringly described as "urban hipsters," which is nothing if not self-referential on Jarmusch's part.

Even if Steve Buscemi didn't turn up as a gun-toting racist wearing an even stupider version of a MAGA hat ("Keep America White Again"), you'd have to be pretty obtuse to miss the political rage simmering just beneath the movie's jokey surface. It's clear enough what Jarmusch is saying: We've become a nation of zombies, lazy and inattentive and addicted to things that don't matter. The Earth is dying, our leaders are morons and a new age of extinction is upon us. Our only shot at redemption -- salvation has long since ceased to be an option -- is to go down fighting.

 

"This isn't going to end well," Driver's character says more than once, until it feels less like a joke than a prophecy. It's not the most cheerful thought as we head into a new election season, though whether this movie will resonate beyond 2019 (Focus Features is releasing it June 14 in the U.S.) remains to be seen. You can share Jarmusch's despair -- I certainly do -- and still find its expression here too tired, bloodless and self-satisfied by half.

I say this as an ardent admirer of the director's previous horror experiment, the sublime vampire romance "Only Lovers Left Alive," and as someone who can usually groove on his work even at its most laconic and self-reflexive (see "Paterson," but really, take your pick). If you walk into "The Dead Don't Die" marveling at the oddity of Jim Jarmusch making a zombie movie, you are likely to walk out thinking it's the only zombie movie Jarmusch could have made. I wish that were more of a compliment.

Still, "The Dead Don't Die" certainly fulfilled its purpose where the festival was concerned, which was to put a lot of star wattage on the red carpet on opening night. It also served to remind all of us in the audience that, after last year's relatively slim Hollywood presence, the 2019 festival lineup would boast a bonanza of high-profile American titles, including Terrence Malick's "A Hidden Life," Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood" and Ira Sachs' "Frankie," plus a splashy studio offering in the form of "Rocketman," the Elton John biopic from the British director Dexter Fletcher.

Some might well see this is as a form of rejuvenation, a chance to bring Cannes itself back from the dead after a 2018 edition that was widely and incorrectly dismissed as lackluster. (If this festival produces a single picture on par with last year's "Burning,""Shoplifters" and "Cold War," it will have been a great one.) My hopes and expectations for Tarantino and Malick are as high as anyone else's, though no higher than they are for the latest works in competition by Celine Sciamma, Jessica Hausner, Diao Yinan and Kleber Mendonca Filho, to name a few.

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