Mystery Train (1989)

An essential early work of Jarmusch, this is a cinematic hymn to Memphis city’s rich musical history, filmed as a connecting triptych of oddball characters of various nationalities over the course of one day and night in this ‘ghost town’. 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Dir. Jim Jarmusch
1989 | USA | Drama/Comedy | 110 mins | 1.77:1 | English
R21 (passed clean) for sexual scene

Cast: Masatoshi Nagase, Yuki Kudo, Nicoletta Braschi, Elizabeth Bracco, Joe Strummer, Rick Aviles, Steve Buscemi, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Cinque Lee
Plot: A collection of international tourists from Japan, Italy, and the UK find themselves in a seedy hotel in the American city of Memphis, in three loosely-related tales surrounding the town’s musical legacy.
Awards: Won Best Artistic Contribution & Nom. for Palme d’Or (Cannes)
Distributor: MGM

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
Spoilers: No

Jim Jarmusch’s fourth feature is not just an essential early work of his, it was also his first feature with a bigger budget shot in colour (1980’s Permanent Vacation doesn’t count), and by Robby Muller no less in their second collaboration after Down By Law (1986). 

Mystery Train is one of Jarmusch’s very best, a cinematic hymn to Memphis city’s rich musical history that features a connecting triptych of oddball characters: a young Japanese couple from Yokohama hoping to visit the famous Sun Studio (the birthplace of rock-and-roll as it were) and Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion;

A recently-widowed Italian from Rome here to retrieve her husband’s body; and a ragtag group of booze-loving ‘brothers’, including a British immigrant whose girlfriend has left him. 

All of them temporarily stay in a nearby hotel for the night, and while their stories do overlap with varying degrees, it is the hotel’s concierge, one of them played by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (whose song, ‘I Put a Spell on You’, was conspicuously used in Jarmusch’s own Stranger Than Paradise five years earlier), who is the constant in Mystery Train’s three similar-length segments. 

“Jun… why do you always have such a sad face? Are you unhappy?”
“I’m very happy. That’s just the way my face is.”

Beginning with a train ride (very much like his later 1995 masterpiece, Dead Man), the film is very much structured as a meditation on transit and stasis, of operating in the liminal spaces such as hotel rooms with their sense of ‘histories’. 

While Memphis is far from being a ‘ghost town’, Jarmusch’s capture of the seemingly barren city’s night streets, unoccupied buildings, and the occasional drunk altercation that we hear offscreen are very much aligned to his offbeat style of filmmaking where he privileges quiet ellipses (e.g. inhabitants closing their hotel room door when they leave; or random conversations between the two black caretakers at the hotel’s front desk that have no beginning or end), as well as the ‘dead’ moments in time that reveal so much about how his characters who in the process of wandering and finding themselves, also silently leave a part of their ‘souls’ behind in this great city of lost spirits.

Grade: A



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