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.