Mystery Train is set in Memphis, and features a scattered cast of people – two young tourists from Japan, an Italian widow, the African-American hotel employees, a group of criminals. Their lives loosely converge at one run-down hotel. The film is ambient and meandering within a tight and clever structure. It is divided into three sections – each chapter presents the same basic location and a similar lapse of time, but from a different perspective. By the end of the film, it is satisfying to see how these three stories barely touch each other. It’s contrived, but gently so – the disparate stories are interconnected, but for no would-be-grandiose purpose à la Magnolia. Instead, the structure has a pleasant literary quality to it. Jarmusch, maybe even more so than Quentin Tarantino, is very good at being episodic. (See also: Broken Flowers, The Limits of Control.) Mystery Train leaves you with the sense that you’re sadly unaware of all the individual stories unfolding all around you, of all the lives that briefly and barely intersect your own.
Mystery Train is one of Jarmusch’s most entertaining and genuinely humorous films. It is full of quietly funny moments – the Japanese boy scolding his girlfriend for packing too many shirts and her solution of layering them, four at a time; the introverted Italian widow easily convinced to buy a dozen magazines; the hotel’s young bellhop discussing his uniform with the desk clerk.The recurring tale that locals tell about the ghost of Elvis Presley is just delightful.
The cinematography, by frequent Wim Wenders collaborator Robby Müller, is beautiful and oddly calming – I especially enjoy slow pans down the street that take in the whole environment in all its empty, faded glory, the eye of the camera moving with the traveling characters, but at a distance. It’s incredibly atmospheric. The nearly deserted streets, cracked pavement, and abandoned, decaying buildings have a mournful aesthetic that I particularly enjoy. One of the qualities I most admire in Jarmusch as a director is his ability to make the mundane beautiful; in this film, we first travel through Memphis with a pair of kids who soak in their new environment with infectious wonder.
The music is, of course, fantastic. (Elvis’ “Blue Moon” plays a pivotal role.) It is fitting that a film about the birthplace of a generation of American music would feature several musicians in its cast. Joe Strummer of the Clash plays a man named Johnny whose appearance has earned him a frequent and much-hated comparison to Elvis, and blues singer Screamin’ Jay Hawkins gives a very amusing deadpan performance as the night clerk. Additionally, Tom Waits voices the radio DJ.
This film is about the allure of a place as much as it is about the people within it. It’s no coincidence that most of Jarmusch’s films are about travel. As Dennis Lim wrote in an essay about the film for Criterion, “Jarmusch’s career… has been consecrated to the possibilities of cross-cultural exchange, the satisfactions of “the drift,” the romance of “someplace else.” This film contains a particularly fascinating idea – that America’s equivalent of cultural landmarks or holy places of pilgrimage would be a ghost town that rock and roll legends once called home. The Memphis of Mystery Train is grimy, mournful, and desolate, but it’s also mythic.