Do people actually like Jim Jarmusch movies or do they just pretend to as a goof? That’s the question I found myself asking after Jarmusch’s latest, The Dead Don’t Die, which feels like the work of someone very bored, someone who can just sort of figure it out as he goes along and trust that his core audience will assign outsized symbolic significance to his every narrative whim. Nice work if you can get it.
In an early scene from The Dead Don’t Die, the song “The Dead Don’t Die” comes on the radio as the two small-town policemen, played by Adam Driver and Bill Murray, ride around the city of Centreville, Pennsylvania. They have an entire conversation about what the song is (“The Dead Don’t Die,” obviously), who sings it (Sturgill Simpson), which goes on for a few minutes. Bill Murray repeatedly wonders aloud, “Why does it sound so familiar?”
“Well, probably because it’s the theme song, Cliff,” Driver’s character finally deadpans.
Objectively, that’s not a joke, but about half the audience chuckled as if it were. Presumably, that’s the self-selecting audience for this movie. To me this scene reads less like droll humor than someone killing time, tediously dissecting his own failure to make narrative choices until all that’s left is a feeling of existential dread. Did someone force you to make this movie? Why would we need an extended tautology about your own title and theme song? It’s like Jarmusch wants to skip making a movie and go straight to giving a TED talk about why he’s made a movie.
On some level, the kind of “humor” Jarmusch employs in The Dead Don’t Die either works on you or it doesn’t. Aside from the above, some other examples of his jokes(?) include:
— Steve Buscemi playing a racist farmer whose red, Trump-style hat says “KEEP AMERICA WHITE AGAIN.” This character also has a dog named “Rumsfeld.”
— Tilda Swinton playing a thickly-accented Scottish woman named “Zelda,” who has a long, multi-layered blonde ponytail and pointy ears and wields a samurai sword. (I think she’s Zelda from the video game?)
— RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan playing a delivery driver for “Wu-PS.”
If you think those bits are compelling and/or hilarious, then The Dead Don’t Die is probably for you. To me it feels like the only joke Jim Jarmusch knows how to tell is “I’m famous and I have famous friends.” Enough famous friends that he can just sort of film people like Adam Driver and Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton standing around saying whatever they thought was cute during a five-minute pre-production meeting and hope it hangs together as a film. Though “hope” assumes they care, and I’m not sure they do. The Dead Don’t Die seems to be more about the act of hanging out than storytelling, more Vanity Fair photo shoot than film.
The Dead Don’t Die, inasmuch as it says anything other than “here’s a song Jim Jarmusch liked,” is ostensibly a zombie movie. It exists in a world where “Polar fracking” has destabilized the Earth’s axis, creating daylight abnormalities and a lunar somethingorother that raises flesh-eating zombies from the dead. Iggy Pop plays one of the zombies. “Coffeeee,” he moans, chugging from the pot.
“This is all going to end badly,” Adam Driver says.
“Why do you keep saying that?” Bill Murray asks.
“Well, because I’ve read the script, Cliff.” Driver says.
Steve Buscemi the Trump guy and his dog, Rumsfeld are fairly representative of the kinds of observations Jarmusch makes in The Dead Don’t Die. Would a racist, Trump-loving farmer in central Pennsylvania give a shit about Donald Rumsfeld, the ultimate Washington insider Bush-crony neocon? Doubtful, but you can tell Jarmusch can’t really be bothered with the details, he’s just sort of impatiently waving his palm going “you know, one of those awful bumpkins.”
Like most bad, vague political “commentary,” it’s hard to tell if Jarmusch dislikes Trump/Bush/Rumsfeld because of their political crimes or simply because he finds them tacky. Is this a statement of principles or just an expression of fashion? “Polar fracking” and its resultant daylight abnormalities feel like similarly vague notions of the world’s problems from someone who gives the impression that he prides himself on not watching TV and gleans his news from gallery-opening repartee. It deals with the world’s problems at an arch remove; no skin in the game.
As for the zombies, “the dead fixate on things they enjoyed when they were alive,” we hear multiple times. Which is more of a technical update on the 50-year-old, zombies-as-metaphor-for-consumerism notion than a fresh use of them. “Wiifiii,” some of the younger zombies moan while holding smartphones, threatening to turn the entire film into an embarrassing Boomer meme.
Jarmusch also writes in a group of “Cleveland hipsters” who pass through town driving a Pontiac Lemans. “That’s the car from George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead,” says the town’s comic book store owner, played by Caleb Landry Jones. “You really have an impressive knowledge of cinema,” says the lead hipster, played by Selena Gomez.
One of the zombies, meanwhile, crawls out of a grave marked “Samuel Fuller” (you know, the director!). Once again, it’s as if Jarmusch can’t be bothered to actually finish the movie he’s making before he starts graciously answering post-film Q&A questions about his influences.
The Dead Don’t Die will presumably find its intended audience, people who love to vicariously hang out with their imaginary movie star best friends, Tilda Swinton and Bill Murray. But for the rest of us, I can’t think of many less valuable experiences than sitting through some bored rich guy’s extended series of inside jokes and half-baked complaints about smartphones.