I would certainly not want The Dead Don't Die to be anybody's first exposure to director Jim Jarmusch, but since it has an unusually wide release for that director, and an unusually friendly genre for that director (it's a comic zombie movie), and a seemingly endless list of famous people in the cast, it seems clear enough that it will be that first exposure for a great many people. So I guess it's worth pointing out that, whatever else is true, this is pure, uncut Jarmusch. Indeed, it is maybe even Jarmusch leaning into it a little. One of the director's most characteristic quirks is his tendency towards extreme deadpan humor; the jokes in The Dead Don't Die are so understated and dry that they turn into a sort of anti-expression. They collapse in on themselves, forming a series of  tiny black holes that structure the movie by turning it into a series of pauses, rather than by giving it momentum.

It's miraculous at times - this is basically a hang-out movie where everything other than the hanging-out has been banished - tedious at other times, but this at least must be said: The Dead Don't Die is a film made entirely without compromise. It is, palpably, exactly the movie that Jarmusch wanted it to be. Whether that's the film that anybody else wanted it to be is hard to say. The film is aggressively ironic and detached, soaking luxuriously in the cadence of how its extremely specific characters talk and think and not putting the slightest effort into speeding them up or making them deal with the plot of a zombie apocalypse happening around them. There's something cheerily perverse about it, much the same as the perversity that happened in his 2013 film Only Lovers Left Alive, where he took a power struggle between three vampires as the occasion to lounge around and hear the undead talk about their taste in music. The Dead Don't Die goes even further on that front: it's one of the most fully committed comedies the director has always made (that being said, every Jarmusch film is at least somewhat of a comedy), dropping the character studies that have typically marked his work to trumpet the extraordinary absurdity of what's happening. This results, I am sorry to say, in a movie that feels acutely insubstantial, seemingly on purpose: it is so detached that detachment itself seems to be the film's main goal, observing without any emotional commitment except a wry smile. It is quite possibly Jarmusch's weakest film - no, not "weakest". That would imply that something went wrong, and I truly don't think it did. Jarmusch's least engaging film, let's say.

The plot is a cross between genre pastiche and homage, knowingly copying from zombie movie godfather George A. Romero: in Centerville, a flyspeck town in rural Pennsylvania, police chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and officers Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny) are seemingly the whole representation of civic government, along with the extravagantly weird new city coroner Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton). This puts them at the forefront of trying to figure out what's going on when one day suddenly decides not to end, remaining in full afternoon sun well past 8:00 PM; this is the apparent trigger for a pair of corpses (Sara Driver, Iggy Pop) to rise from the grave and attack a small diner. So now the "what's going on" includes not just climate disaster (which is, perhaps, caused by a controversial new fracking program at both poles, which has been accused of shifting the Earth's axis of rotation), but gutmunching revenants that manage to destroy the town while everybody - generally including the victims - stands around looking befuddled. This all takes place at approximately one-third to one-half of the speed you might assume.

Boilerplate every inch, and it knows it: this is a zombie movie about people who know they're in a zombie movie. It's an homage to Romero's Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead first and above all, from the Pennsylvania setting to a pin being worn by genre geek Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones), who is with Ronnie one of two characters who seems quite aware that he's in a zombie movie, to the themes of social atomisation that Jarmusch has borrowed without altering them even slightly from Dawn. So I take it back: when I say that the film is insubstantial, what I actually mean is that the substance doesn't work. This wants, extremely badly, to be commentary on the American cultural and political landscape in 2019. Zombie films have been read as metaphors for this or that racial or economic underclass since they started, of course, so that's not new; and, well, that's the thing, that's not new. Jarmusch's idea of social commentary is blatant and dumb - Steve Buscemi, one of many famous people to appear for around three total minutes, plays a racist farmer with a "Keep America White Again" baseball cap, which tells you about both the level of satire and the level of comedy generally - and just in case it wasn't blatant enough, he brings in Tom Waits at the end to provide solemn, oracular narration telling us precisely what the themes of the movie we just watched were (too much consumerism, too much sensationalist media, and too much hatred of everybody around us have already turned us into zombies, basically). Which is already extremely annoying, doubly so since they are word-for-word the same as the themes of Dawn, and that film didn't ever get more explicit than having one character muse that the zombies gravitate towards a shopping mall because they valued it in life. A line that The Dead Don't Die repeats almost verbatim.

Alright, so it's stillborn as social commentary; that's easily the biggest fault with the movie, and it's not a little fault, either. But there does remain the all-important kernel of deadpan comedy, with Jim Jarmusch assembling I don't even know how many of his buddies to hang around and say goofball things in monotone. It's not a terribly accessible brand of humor, to say the least, but it works damn well for what it is. Certainly the number of people who already get Jarmusch's verbal rhythms is a godsend to the cast, and giving Murray, Driver, Swinton, and Waits four of the biggest roles ensures that the bulk of the film will be carried by people who start on the film's scruffy wavelength rather than having to fight their way to get there (Sevigny, with the next biggest role after Murray and Driver, suffers from having to play the only person normal person in a universe of oddballs, and getting basically no good jokes). Driver (who starred in the director's most recent feature, 2016's Paterson) is especially great, filling every one of his line readings with a fascinating mix of bafflement and determination, and doing everything he can to define the lanky rhythms by which the film ambles along. He and Murray are a fantastic onscreen pair, and The Dead Don't Die is always at its best when it stays away from its plot and just lets them easily toss dialogue back and forth. The script is constructed out of repetitions of words and sentences (and even shot set-ups; the funniest bit in the film, for a given definition of funny, involves the three cops, one at a time, finding the dead bodies in the diner in exactly the same way), and much of its pleasure lies in the actors' ability to exactly replicate the cadence of those sentences in every repetition. It's an enormously precise movie, and the precision of the best performances is maybe the most important way that the film crafts its peculiar languid tone.

Admirably well-made or not, the question that I could never quite find an answer to was why, exactly, the film exists. I hope the answer isn't the pedestrian social commentary; even more do I hope that it's not the awkward meta-humor in which the characters are occasionally aware that they're people in a fictional movie titled The Dead Don't Die, written and directed by Jim Jarmusch (these are easily the flattest bits of the film, to me). But if it's not these things, I can't quite figure out what the purpose to any of this is. Adding a zombie film to a film that otherwise finds the director playing to type in all of the most obvious ways is amusing in a very small way to a very small natural audience; deadpan understatement in the face of apocalypse is a joke that runs its course pretty much the moment that we understand that "understatement" will always and only mean "people talk for four minutes at a time without ever saying anything". It's a weird and wonderfully idiosyncratic thing, but it's also kind of inert and surface-level, a movie that seems like it was probably more fun to make than it ever is to watch.