Editor's Note: We're featuring individually chosen FYC's for various longshots in the Oscar race. We'll never repeat a film or a category so we hope you enjoy the variety of picks. And if you're lucky enough to be an AMPAS, HFPA, or Critics Group voter, take note! Here's Tim on Only Lovers Left Alive.
From Gary Oldman’s transformation into a desiccated gargoyle, to a 7-year-old wearing plastic fangs, vampires have long been an inspiration for disguising human beings as immortal bloodsuckers. And with Only Lovers Left Alive, the hair and makeup designer Gerd Zeiss has made a terrific addition to the annals of the cinematic undead.
Director Jim Jarmusch’s vision for the film was more about characters detached from time than horror, and so the vampires played by Tilda Swinton,Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowsa, and John Hurt haven’t been designed to look like animate corpses, so much as people who are very, very tired, and very, very old. Swinton’s pallid flesh and stringy, wild straw-colored hair are maybe the most immediately impressive work of design, instantly communicating the idea of decades and centuries spent in the dark and isolated from the world, a feeling that she is herself starting to fade away. It doesn’t necessarily communicate illness or decay, so much as a kind of thinness and used-up energy.
Tilda is the film’s showiest vampire, but all of them suggest the same principles of fatigue and being removed from the entire history of human fashion, out of some combination of disinterest and being out-of-sync with the times. Hiddleston’s lanky, unwashed hair does that one way; Hurt’s craggy, sallow face does it another, particularly later in the film, as he grows increasingly worn-out and weak even by this film’s standards. And Wasikowska stands in contrast to them, with overly bright, scrubbed flesh that speaks to her character’s far different priorities and interests, even before the plot starts to make those differences manifest.
In its sole important human character, played by Anton Yelchin, the film even finds space for a wannabe vampire poser, though he isn’t aware that’s what he’s doing. But the calculated sloppiness of his hair and his unfortunately scruffy face illustrates the mind of someone who wants to project an image to the world, even as Hiddleston and Swinton suggest those who no longer care in the slightest what other people think of their appearance.
Of fancy prosthetics and architecturally elaborate up-dos, there are none, But Only Lovers Left Alive gets far more mileage out of the small details of its character makeup than most movies relying on enormously fanciful monsters ever could hope to. It draws us steadily and invisibly into the characters’ history and worldview and mood, using their appearance to suggest their backstories in ways that would be clumsy and obvious put into dialogue. It’s an essential reason that the film is one of the deepest and emotionally involving vampire movies of recent years.