The Dead Don't Die - Review
All flash, very little substance.
In a world of slackers and doomsdayers, Jim Jarmusch may be the most inconsistent member. The writer/director’s career has veered from hopeless romanticism to boldfaced optimism, and nearly everywhere in between, and despite his deep pocket of themes and motifs, he is still generally labeled as a downcast, shoe-kicking nihilist. His latest film, featuring the most talent-stacked cast he’s ever put together, makes good on that presumption, resulting in one of his most predictable films yet.
If there’s one thing The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t want you to forget, it’s that it knows you’re probably not going to like it. In one of his most unexpected bait-and-switches, the film is a nearly incomprehensible mash of fear for the future, social commentary, and fourth wall-breaking. The cast, which includes Adam Driver, Bill Murray, Selena Gomez and RZA to name a few, is here to serve the script, not the story. Driver seems to be the only one having any fun, and his moments in a ridiculously tiny smart-car are some of the best deadpan moments in the film.
Elsewhere The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t have much to say. There is a (VERY) thinly veiled allusion to climate change, caused by polar fracking that spins the Earth off its axis. Zombies ensue, and the small town of Centerville (get it?) goes through one hell of a weekend. There are cynical archetypes who believe in nothing but the moment, a cool factor Bill Murray continues to nail decades after picking it up, and there are actors who appear seemingly because Jarmusch thought they should. Tilda Swinton feels particularly shafted, as her katana-wielding mortician experiences a completely thrown-together arc that hijacks the film’s finale. The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t take plot very seriously, and is clearly using the small town framework to subvert expectations, but rarely do these moments of death, revelation, or loss feel earned, much less experienced. Selena Gomez is reduced to eye candy, which may be the film’s greatest crime.
Like his other genre experiments Only Lovers Left Alive and Dead Man, The Dead Don’t Die has plenty of Jarmusch charm. Frames are packed with textured set dressing, and the special effects department works wonders to bring not only the zombies to life, but to add just enough whimsy to make it feel like an anything-goes early 2000s debut. In these ways the film is an exciting visual corkboard; replete with jokes, subtle jabs at society and enough fake guts to fill a roadside diner. The table is set well, but the humor of Don’t Die is remarkably tone deaf to the ideas it’s driving at: Tom Waits’ ragged “Homeless Bob” survives the apocalypse because he is isolated, viewing all through binoculars that represent those who have decided they no longer care who sits on the Iron Throne. A group of young kids begin the film in juvy, escaping after things get serious, and run off into the woods. Along with Bob they’re some of the only characters we don’t see die in glorious, gory fashion; the message is as flat as the lazy execution. Kids are the future, and they will be the ones to solve ours and past generations’ problems. Alright, but what else?
More often than not, Jarmusch seems more inclined to mention world issues than offer any commentary on them; even the jabs he sneaks in on himself are phoned in attempts to satirize the predictability of the film. I have no reason to believe Jim Jarmusch is slowing down as a filmmaker; his previous two films suggest he’s hitting a new stride, but The Dead Don’t Die is a curiously overblown satire of issues that just don’t scare people anymore. Zombies, global warming, Trump; they’re all much too real now, even the things that once seemed impossible.