' ' Cinema Romantico: The Dead Don't Die

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Dead Don't Die

As Bill Murray has aged, his public life has often seemed to embody the anarchic streak of his younger movie self while onscreen he has only grown more and more mellow. In Jim Jarmusch’s latest postmodern whatizit, playing small-town Chief of Police Cliff Robertson, Murray is his mellowest yet, which is not just saying something, so to speak, but really saying something about the movie itself. It’s called “The Dead Don’t Die” because it’s about the undead, the reanimated, zombies rising from the grave and attacking the people of Centreville – “a real good place to live.” That sounds dramatic and urgent. But when the zombies begin wandering through the street, Cliff just stands there, along with his policing cohorts, Officer Ronnie (Adam Driver) and Officer Mindy (ChloĆ« Sevigny), hardly moving, barely reacting, less panicked than resigned, like it’s “Gattaca” and they have just been handed a slip of paper denoting their date and time of death – right now, more or less. It’s a mood befitting Sturgill Simpson’s opening credit cut, named after the movie itself, which paints a thin line between the living and the dead. Not a new idea, necessarily, but rarely has a movie embraced an aloof tone so fully that its characters feel like, to paraphrase Simpson, ghosts inside a dream of a life they don’t own.

Jarmusch’s movies have almost always been at least partially self-aware, appraising and critiquing the genres they inhabit, and in “The Dead Don’t Die” everyone seems acutely aware of where they are beyond coordinates on a map, like Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones), whose Centreville gas station doubles as a kind of horror movie memorabilia store with a CD for sale bearing the very same Sturgill Simpson song itself, a glimpse of the movie’s wry sentience. Indeed, throughout characters drop hints making clear they know they are in a movie, or some of them do, Officer Ronnie for sure, who even confesses to having read the script beforehand, a jokey kind of omniscience, sure, but also an evocation of the film's feeling of inevitability that gradually grows more profound.

We might not know precisely how big Centreville is but we know it’s at least big enough to have its own news station and anchor (Rosie Perez), glimpsed on TV throughout offering updates on the living dead. Yet Jarmusch provides a deliberately abstruse view of the town, glimpsed only in a few standard locations, like a motel and a diner, the shots looking out Chief Robertson’s window always cutting away quickly rather than lingering. It suggests the town as being cut off, from each other and everything else. If the appearance of a Keep America White Again hat and cryptic references to polar fracking as being the cause for this zombie apocalypse suggest brewing political commentary, none of this amounts to much, peripheral bits of business that “The Dead Don’t Die” doesn’t really consider because none of the characters do, painting the What’s Going On In The World as something to be blithely ignored.

In the run-up to the reanimated, Jarmusch cuts between a wide swath of different people, in groups or as individuals, from the police officers to an old hermit to three hip teenagers rolling in from parts unknown, a familiar tactic that seems destined to bring them together as events spiral. Yet Jarmusch forgoes such emergent togetherness, mostly keeping them apart, so that when one of the hip teenagers mocks Bobby as Bilbo Baggins it’s not foreshadowing for later, when his extensive pop culture knowledge might come in handy, but designed to leave a bad taste in our mouth. And if zombies are often just extras to be offed, here they just as frequently become a turn of the screw, asking the tolerant in the audience if they might get their kicks from chopping up a MAGA undead or if they might immediately revert to Darwinism, a la Officer Ronnie, who in Driver’s nonchalant air bizarrely if effectively takes so much gas out of the ostensible terror by just taking things as they come. (No wonder he drives a Smart Car!)

Officer Ronnie never quite becomes a hero, though, even if he sometimes feels as if he is being set up as one, just Zelda Winston, the new funeral home proprietor, played by Tilda Swinton with a precise Scottish accent and a gleam in her eye, never quite becomes one either, even if she knows her way around a Samurai sword. That’s the set-up destined to leave certain viewers conditioned for a traditional payoff either confused or possibly pissed off, so casually does Jarmusch expunge these presumed establishing devices, the notion that a hero might rise going up like one of the puffs of smoke every time a zombie is decapitated. No, the undead just keep coming, evoked in the recurring nature of Sturgill Simpson’s theme, driving Cliff so batty he finally throws the CD out the window of his cruiser, equating an unstoppable onslaught of zombies with the nagging sensation of getting a tune stuck in your head. That’s pretty funny when you think about it.

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