Quintessentially Jim Jarmusch from his preference of building character situations that consist of only two or three players at most (as evidenced in Stranger than Paradise and Down By Law) as well as his fondness for exploring very specific areas of America from an outsider or foreigner’s point-of-view, Mystery Train can be viewed as the creative precursor to Jarmusch’s epic multi-location anthology film Night on Earth as well as the culmination of his previous work until that point.
Divided into three sections dubbed “Far From Yokohama,” “A Ghost” and “Lost In Space” respectively, 1989’s Mystery Train is set in the streets, bars, diners, and run-down motels of Memphis, Tennessee. Although Graceland is discussed rather than seen, Jarmusch’s Memphis permeates with the past, despite the fact that the film itself has never looked better in Criterion’s painstaking process or restoration and remastering the individual frames to clean up dirt and debris along with any hisses on the dated audio soundtrack to high definition splendor.
In the span of roughly twenty-four hours, the spirit of the King lingers throughout, literally as both a ghost and a character nicknamed “Elvis” and figuratively in the Sun Records famed music that plays on the cassettes of two eighteen year old Japanese tourists or on the late night radio station where DJ Tom Waits (most likely reprising his role in Law) spins records as well as in the conversations that his diverse cast of characters have with each other.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is that, much like Night on Earth, the three individual plot-lines are solid enough that they can be viewed separately as short works. However, when taking them in one after another and especially on repeat screenings, you’ll gain a much better appreciation for the way that Jarmusch and editor Melody London cleverly layers the trio with the same uniting sound effects of a gunshot, a train whistle blowing, in addition to Waits’ radio banter.
Likewise, more repetition is noticed as Train boasts some characters who either interact with each group of tourists and locals like Cinque Lee’s bellhop and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ hotel night manager or are discussed in one segment only to appear in another as is the case in Elizabeth Bracco’s memorable nervous monologue in “Ghost” which pays off brilliantly when the men mentioned later manifest in “Space.”
Fond of understated humor, only the vaguest of explanations for character behavior as Nicoletta Braschi attempts to return to Italy with her deceased husband with unknown details, and unafraid of exploring silence as Jarmusch characters often seem like they’re always on the move whether they’re hoofing it or riding in a plane, train, or car, Mystery Train is another of his great existential early works that require either passive or active intellectual interest with which to engage on a multitude of levels.
Whether you dig the moody atmosphere of the piece captured by cinematographer Robby Muller and prefer to view it on a purely visceral level or take great joy in noticing the overlapping patterns in not only this movie but also in reference to the other works Jarmusch has created, the Cannes award winning film singled out for its artistic contribution remains impervious to age and furthermore, just as fun to celebrate as good old fashioned Sun Records rock ‘n roll.
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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.