Oh, Jim. I didn’t have high expectations exactly, but at least some expectations, including that of being entertained and humming a few good tunes while watching some fine actors doing what they do best. Aside from producing the occasional smile, Jim Jarmusch’s Cannes opener (geddit?) The Dead Don’t Die did not live up to any of those expectations.
Jarmusch often sets a fairly languorous pace in his films, but there is a big difference between languor and sluggishness. Scenes clunk from one to another, while lines are spoken in similar fashion. Bill Murray seems to be making no attempt to enter into any kind of character other than the Murray persona we have known and loved for decades.
Murray plays local chief of police, Cliff Robertson, in a sleepy rural town. His deputies are independent gal Mindy Morrison (Chloe Sevigny) and eternal pessimist Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver). We meet the two male officers as they hunt down oddball Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), who lives in the woods foraging and subsisting on squirrels and bugs. As the men drive off, leaving Hermit Bob well alone, they note that the light is different and we know that we are in for a long night.
Lines and frames are repeated ad-nauseum, and though this wrings a few laughs initially, the joke very quickly wears thin, as do all the self-referential moments of meta cinema, which are heavy-handed enough to fell you. Alongside the repetition are overt nods to the US political climate and the voters who put the orange man in the White House. Steve Buscemi plays Farmer Miller who is seen wearing a ‘Keep America White Again’ hat. For a film that is clearly taking a shot at Trump voters, Jarmusch actually makes Miller the most interesting and entertaining character. This might have something to do with Buscemi’s immense comedic skills and the fact that, unlike Murray, he at least makes a concerted effort to get into character.
The film is littered with stars, but only Buscemi is outstanding. Poor Chloe Sevigny is basically asked to literally take a back seat and whimper her way through the movie, while Tilda Swinton plays her umpteenth other-worldly, whacky woman. She’s the Scottish funeral home director who is very nifty with a samurai sword. She’s actually good fun,but I long for the day that we see her reprise a role similar to her superlative turn as Karen Crowder in Michael Clayton. Selena Gomez shows up in town with her fellow ‘hipsters from Cleveland’ and has little to do other than show off her loveliness, and even then it’s for a short time. Characters are introduced and then disappear at the end, as if Jarmusch couldn’t be bothered to finish the story, making them redundant to the plot, such as it is.
However, it’s not all bad. Iggy Pop as a coffee-loving zombie gets some laughs and the audience is treated to other zombies unearthed and looking for what they loved in life, whether coffee, candy or WiFi. And there is always a sweetness to Jarmusch’s films, which is also present here, but the film needs something to counter that saccharine side and Buscemi’s angry farmer alone is not enough. More importantly, even if a horror film is tongue in cheek, it still needs to scare its audience from time to time yet at no point is the audience even made to leap out of its seat a little. And Hermit Bob’s voiceover witnessing the fall of civilization is yet another bum note in an atonal film made by a director who appears to have briefly lost his ear. As Driver’s character repeatedly says: ‘This isn’t going to end well’. How right he is.