This article was originally published during 2019’s Festival de Cannes. We are republishing the piece as the film releases into theaters.
Ever since becoming a big movie star a few years back, Adam Driver hasn’t had as many opportunities to demonstrate the comedy chops he showed off early in his career. Those are the kinds of trade-offs you make when you sign up for Star Wars, but still, thank heavens for Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, which just kicked off this year’s Cannes Film Festival, for reminding us all of what a joy the actor can be when he leans fully into his laconic weirdo mode.
For an opening film, Jarmusch’s zombie comedy had something of a muted reception upon its premiere Tuesday night. It’s not hard to see why: It’s a screwy, meta romp so casual even the impending zombie apocalypse is greeted with nothing more than a half-hearted shrug. That kind of tone is not ideal for anything approaching stakes or satire, but the laid-back vibe works great for Driver — the film’s whole deal is a slow serve that lets him put as much English on his lines as possible.
And what English it is! As one of a pair of cops in small-town Pennsylvania fighting back the undead hordes, Driver already had a minor moment when the internet cottoned on to the way he said the word ghouls in the film’s trailer, summoning every bit of his Julliard training to pronounce the word with equal parts intensity and absurdity. I’m here to tell you, the full film has plenty more where that came from. Did you know you needed the experience of hearing Adam Driver saying the phrase “coroner from Latrobe” in your life? Probably not, but you’ll be glad you did.
Alongside the aforementioned ghouls, here are some more common words Driver manages to invest with previously unseen levels of silliness: yuck, bad news, decapitate, and reanimated. He also announces, apropos of very little, that he has “an affinity for Mexicans,” with a stentorian tone that somehow brings to mind the glory days of Mitt Romney.
Jarmusch clearly knows what he’s got in Driver, and he has a lot of fun with the actor’s physical frame, jamming him into a tiny Smartcar for no reason I can think of except that it looks incredibly goofy. He made it a convertible, too, just so we can get an even closer look at how ridiculous the hulking actor looks tooling around rural Pennsylvania in a tiny car. (Or maybe because Driver simply wouldn’t fit in it otherwise.)
There’s a lot going on in The Dead Don’t Die, and ultimately, in a film that includes not only zombies but also aliens, samurai swords, fracking jokes, Tom Waits as a backwoodsman, and numerous breakings of the fourth wall, Driver serves as a crucial grounding force. He’s responsible for most of Jarmusch’s zanier meta touches, but thanks to his deadpan delivery, they land more than they don’t. When Driver’s character reminds Bill Murray that the song they’re listening to is the theme song of the movie they’re in, he’s not doing it with a nod or a wink; he’s simply stating a fact because it’s true. Just like it’s true they’re not dealing with wild animals, or even multiple animals, but “full-on, flesh-eating zombie shit.” Or, as Driver puts it in a moment that still brings the house down even after everyone knows it’s coming, “ghouls.”