Conceptually, Jim Jarmusch's approach to his chosen subgenre in The Dead Don't Die is interesting. By now, the most common zombie-movie convention—that nobody in our pop culture–saturated modern day has ever heard of zombies before the flesh-eaters destroy civilization—is rightly regarded as a bit silly. Jarmusch's characters, on the other hand, know they're in a zombie movie. This permits the film to dispense with scenes where the audience must amuse themselves while the naifs onscreen have the concept of zombies explained to them. More importantly, it allows Jarmusch to explore a uniquely contemporary phenomenon. Facing down an apocalypse that they can see coming a mile away, that is clear as day and as government-abetted climate change, these characters react with resignation rather than fear, outrage, or desperation. The fix is in; they've literally seen the script. The world is fucked up, as Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) growls. What's the point of fighting madly (and fruitlessly) to save it or ourselves?
On the page, this sounds like a new classic, a Night of the Living Dead for an era of Twitter presidencies and alternative facts. In practice, though, the metafictional touches and the mannered writing have an enervating effect. In trying to recreate the exhausted gloominess so familiar to those living in our current political moment, Jarmusch does too good of a job, wallowing in it rather than illuminating or elaborating on it. Or perhaps it is fairer to say that he illuminates it briefly and then wallows in it. Jarmusch makes the protagonists supremely self-aware about their own doom and congratulates the audience for being in on the joke, but in doing so he neuters the film's ability to effectively critique those protagonists' essential passivity. This is what essayist and professor Lewis Hyde once warned against when he wrote that such irony "is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage." The film doesn't have time to explore whether Adam Driver's Cassandra-like foreknowledge leads to hopelessness or to outright apathy (or if there is even a difference between the two), but it can definitely find time to set up a joke about how Driver has a big role in those new Star Wars movies!
The postmodern game-playing is fleetingly amusing, but this constant winking at the audience soon develops into something like a tic. It strikes this reviewer as slightly irresponsible as well, given the serious societal ills that Jarmusch self-consciously calls out early in the film. (Steve Buscemi's farmer wears a hat emblazoned with the incoherent slogan "Keep America White Again," while the news is constantly reporting on the corrupt government's attempts to sweep malfeasance under the rug.) You don't have to agree, though, to see how such faffing about diminishes the audience's ability to take Jarmusch seriously when he wants us to. His film aims for Vonnegut-style "so it goes" elegy, but it lands instead in the quirk-for-its-own-sake flimsiness of Jared and Jerusha Hess (Napoleon Dynamite).
Eventually, the film deflates entirely. The viewer might be excused for awaiting the film's end with the same nonplussed attitude with which these characters await their own. It's hard not to think wistfully of Jarmusch's wonderful Only Lovers Left Alive, which portrayed a different sort of undead apocalypse with all the pathos and oddball energy that's mostly missing from The Dead Don't Die. The apocalypse we see here is theoretically interesting, in the same way that the Cliff's Notes to a great novel may be interesting but cannot compare to the experience of actually reading a great novel. Jarmusch layers himself with too much ironic detachment to allow for more visceral (sorry) engagement with his ideas. Hermit Bob's film-concluding speech may be far too on-the-nose to work, really, but it nevertheless arrives like an oasis in the desert. Here, at least, we receive reassurance that it is not only the worst who are full of passionate intensity.