In Jim Jarmusch’s zombie comedy “The Dead Don’t Die,” Adam Driver and Bill Murray play Ronnie and Cliff, a pair of amiable police officers in a small town called Centerville that could be Upstate New York or the Poconos – a rural, pleasant redoubt that when the movie opens is seen behind a scrim of gentle mist. “A Real Nice Place,” reads a welcome sign later in the film, which of course can only mean that it’s not going to stay that way for long.
Ronnie and Cliff are on their way to see Hermit Bob, the prime suspect in a local crime spree. “Don’t break any more laws,” Cliff says in his measured, easygoing tone. “Just calm down.” That low-key equanimity is completely in Murray’s wheelhouse, but it won’t do much good when Centerville starts to go kerblooey, first with some strange solar phenomenon, phones and radios acting strangely, and finally with the arrival of staggering, staring, intestine-eating wraiths.
Does the chaos that engulfs Centerville have something to do with the strange new undertaker Zelda (Tilda Swinton), who practices arcane martial arts and converses with her deceased clients with a heavy Scottish burr? Is it brought on by a horror movie aficionado named Bobby (Caleb Landry Jones), who runs the corner convenience store? Has a boom in polar fracking tipped the Earth off its axis? Or, as Ronnie and Cliff’s earnest colleague Mindy (Chlok Sevigny) says worriedly, is the world just “kind of strange lately?”
“The Dead Don’t Die” is animated by the same mordant humor that has become Jarmusch’s trademark since making his debut a generation ago. Indeed, the entire opening credit sequence reads like an honor roll of downtown New York street cred. Such venerated elders as Tom Waits, Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop and producer Sara Driver play supporting roles, along with relative youngsters like Selena Gomez and Sturgill Simpson. Jarmusch lards his script with self-referential nods that reward viewers heavily invested in their own cool, in-on-it knowingness. And sure, the callbacks and inside jokes bounce along charmingly at first, invoking not just Jarmusch’s oeuvre, but that of his stars. But the banter eventually becomes stifling, as claustrophobic and oppressive as Centerville itself.
When Jarmusch made a vampire movie – the exquisite 2013 film “Only Lovers Left Alive” – he turned it into an elegant, elegiac comment on dependency, urban decay and rebirth. Here, his organizing principles are much fuzzier. As things get weirder in “The Dead Don’t Die,” that’s all they do: get weirder (and gorier), but not sharper or more illuminating.
A sight gag involving a slyly re-worded MAGA hat suggests that Jarmusch is mounting an impassioned critique of his times. But the sundry political swipes never add up to anything beyond throwing shade.
Two separate groups of young people – a houseful of kids in juvenile detention and some road-tripping hipsters – point to a kids-will-save-us optimism that never bears fruit. When the ragged, often graphically yucky apocalypse reaches its most fervid expression, Jarmusch sets his sights on the myriad ways we distract and self-medicate in a culture that’s become addicted to materialism and convenience. But that idea vaporizes in the wake of a deus ex machina cheat.
The absurdism wears gratingly thin in “The Dead Don’t Die,” whose deadpan tone gives way to tiresome, grindingly repetitive inertia. Jarmusch might be seeking to pre-empt criticism when he has a character bemoan hipsters “and their irony,” but that’s precisely the kind of winking meta-commentary that winds up deep-sixing his own film.
“The Dead Don’t Die” looks like it was a blast to make. But, ultimately, it’s the audience that gets it in the neck.
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