Director and writer Jim Jarmusch is not a filmmaker for everyone. However, his style and sensibilities click for me – at least with the films of his that I’ve been able to see. We also appear to have similar tastes in our actors, as he constantly casts people who I adore. Thus, the moment the trailer dropped for The Dead Don’t Die (2019), it became my most anticipated film of the year – and for the most part, it didn’t disappoint.
The Dead Don’t Die checked a lot of my boxes
Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) is the chief of police in the quiet town of Centerville…that is, quiet until the dead begin to rise. Teamed with Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and Officer Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny), they try to assist and guide the rest of the town through this devastating turn of events that slowly escalates into weirdness. Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) seems to have a grip on the oddities arising, and the man the town sees as odd is the only one prepared for what is coming.
While Cliff and Ronnie are the main characters with Hermit Bob playing a close third, the film is very much built on an ensemble. Tilda Swinton plays an strange individual who is best classified as a Scottish Samurai who is new to the town and runs the funeral home. There is the nerdy Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones), who runs the local gas station meshed with comic book shop, Hank Thompson (Danny Glover), who runs the hardware store, apparently racist Farmer Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi), the out of town hipsters led by Zoe (Selena Gomez) who stay at the hotel run by Danny Perkins (Larry Fessenden), and the three kids stuck in the Juvenile Detention Center. Jarmusch ties all of these characters together in interesting ways, both narratively and thematically throughout the course of the zombie mayhem that makes for some satisfying pay-offs and a few shocking reveals.
The film is Jarmusch doing what he has done before in terms of genre exercise. Take a look at Dead Man (1995), where he subverts the expectations of a western, and yet embodies the generic elements – or Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), which is a hip take on a vampire film that really emphasizes the distaste of the human species. Here in The Dead Don’t Die, Jarmusch plays on the expectations of the zombie film, and yet manages to deliver on what one would expect from a film featuring the undead – and, as Robbie repeats multiple times, (which the audience knows) that it likely “won’t end well.”
While I found the dead-pan humor and the performances to be exceptional, there was still something missing from this film to put it in the top of his films for me. Paterson (2016) is my favorite Jarmusch film to date, but I went in expecting this film to overtake it, as I have a strong love of the zombie genre and Bill Murray (the only thing missing from Paterson). I can’t quite put my finger on my only reservation with this film, but whatever is silently nagging at me is what will stop it from being my favorite of the year, and maybe keep it out of the top five.
Still, if you like any of the cast members in this film, zombies, or political commentary (a detail I’m leaving out of this review for a variety of reasons) then you should definitely give The Dead Don’t Die a chance. During the film at the public screening I attended, the crowd seemed to laugh at all the key jokes, but hearing conversations as I left the theater, the general audience seemed very mixed. Jarmusch doesn’t make films for everyone, but the only way to know if his films work for you is to check them out. The Dead Don’t Die earns the Not Quite Golden, Ponyboy rating, with a second viewing assuredly a must.