Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 8, 2019)
When you hear the name “Jim Jarmusch”, you don’t think “zombie movie”. However, the acclaimed indie filmmaker brings his quirky spin to the genre via 2019’s The Dead Don’t Die.
In the small town of Centerville, oddness starts to prevail. Police Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) find themselves subjected to a mix of weird occurrences and goings-on around their location.
As time passes, matters get stranger and stranger until the unthinkable happens: the dead rise from the grave. Under a zombie assault, the cops and other locals battle for survival.
Eventually. We don’t see any zombies until about half an hour into the movie, which might not seem like an extended wait, but the sluggish manner in which Jarmusch explores Centerville makes the delay feel longer.
Even that scene offers only a brief blip, as the more substantial zombie plot doesn’t materialize until close to an hour into Die. Again, if Jarmusch used this time well, I wouldn’t object to the absence of zombies in his zombie movie, but much of this opening hour feels slow and pointless.
With lots of space to introduce the characters, Die fails to depict them in a satisfying manner. Jarmusch likes deadpan and ironic, so the film comes with monotone characters who fail to behave like real people.
In Jarmusch’s universe, the characters understand they exist in a movie, and Die acts as a parody – a really, really low-key parody. Again, almost all the actors underplay their roles in a severe manner, a tactic apparently intended to provoke mirth.
Instead, it all seems too wink-wink, nudge-nudge. This is a movie in which characters hear the flick’s title tune on the radio and refer to it as the theme song.
They also largely seem crazily nonplussed when confronted by zombies. Since they understand they live in a movie, most fail to react with much emotion.
The willingness to break the wall between characters and actors goes extreme late in the movie. Some may appreciate this violation of cinematic norms, but it just feels contrived to me.
It doesn’t help that Jarmusch beats us over the head with the movie’s deeper message. He makes it clear that fracking causes the zombie awakening, and he also ensures we get a racist character (Steve Buscemi) with a Trump-style red cap that reads “Make America White Again”.
Look, I loathe the current presidential administration as much as anyone, but material such as this feels like preaching to the choir. Jarmusch movies seem unlikely to appeal to the MAGA crowd, so his desire to swat at low-hanging fruit feels gratuitous and without intelligence.
At least Jarmusch can attract a stellar pack of actors. In addition to Murray, Driver and Buscemi, Die boasts a cast that includes Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Tom Waits, Danny Glover, Selena Gomez and other notables.
None of them manage to do much with the undercooked material – except Swinton, that is. As a Scottish undertaker with a talent for swordplay, Swinton brings effervescence to her role and makes her smattering of scenes a delight.
Otherwise, we find ourselves stuck in a movie that believes it’s smarter and more insightful than it is. Devoid of subtlety or much cleverness, the movie can’t deliver an engaging experience.