It cannot be said that with his fourth film, Mystery Train (1989), Jim Jarmusch strayed too far from his style. Perhaps, since his previous film was the brilliant comedy Down By Law (1986), it would’ve been fair to expect something more than what appears to be a simple evolution of the director’s first two works, Permanent Vacation (1980) and Stranger Than Paradise (1984). Mystery Train is indeed close to the latter two movies and doesn’t contain any of the humor seen in Down By Law thanks, mainly, to the presence of Roberto Benigni. This doesn’t mean that there’s no humor at all, but the laughs stem from the nonsensical and surreal situations rather than from actual jokes and brilliant dialogues.
Mystery Train tells three intertwining stories all taking place during 24 hours in Memphis with the protagonists of each story all staying in a shabby hotel in a poor neighborhood of the city. In the first episode, Far From Yokohama, a couple of young Japanese tourists (Masatoshi Nagase and Yûki Kudô) arrive in town to visit the Sun Studio, the recording studio of the great pioneers of rock ‘n roll like Elvis Prestley , and Graceland, the house of the King. In the second episode, probably the weakest of the three, Ghosts, an Italian woman (Nicoletta Braschi) meets a series of strange characters before the ghost of Elvis appears to her in a vision. In the last episode, Lost In Space (like the science fiction TV series), an Englishman (Joe Strummer), his American brother-in-law (Steve Buscemi), and an African American friend (Rick Aviles) all get in trouble with the law after two of them lost their jobs due to the economic crisis.
Despite the structure which is more elaborate than usual, it’s clear from this brief summary that all the elements of Jarmusch’s cinema are present in this film.
- First: the music is the key, with the palpable obsession for Elvis (and for Carl Perkins) common to the three episodes, with the presence of the singer of The Clash and Screamin ‘Jay Hawkins (already mentioned in Stranger Than Paradise) among the protagonists, with the voice of Tom Waits who is a night DJ (he was also a DJ in Down By Law), and with a splendid soundtrack by John Lurie, who this time didn’t work as an actor. Also, the title of the film is a famous Memphis song of which Elvis recorded a famous version!
- Second: once again, we follow the vicissitudes of petty criminals, poor people, or just simple people who live boring lives with no future whatsoever (think of the two hotel workers played by Cinqué Lee and Jay Hawkins).
- Third: almost everyone smokes cigarettes all the time throughout the film.
- Fourth: the film goes against most basic unwritten rules of mainstream Hollywood, in this case by choosing as protagonists non-white American male actors (which was the standard at that time). Here there are two Japanese who don’t speak English, an Italian who does so with a strong accent, and finally an Englishman and an African American (along with Steve Buscemi, whose role is not too different from the one he would play in The Big Lebowski almost ten years later)!
- Fifth: Jarmusch once again showed on screen the ugly part of the United States: dirty, poor, with people tired of life who see nothing positive in their future.
- Sixth: the movie is full of the director’s classic shots with the characters walking sideways in horrid areas of the city. And there’s also the ubiquitous dialogue in which, according to one character, two places are identical to each other, in this case Memphis and Yokohama, which couldn’t be more different!
I could continue, but I think I made myself clear. After seeing Jarmusch’s first four films, it’s as if we knew a little about him, since his way of making movies reveals a lot about his personality. I think that Mystery Train‘s only flaw is that if you don’t like the director’s style, surely this won’t be the movie that will make you change your mind. The pace is slow, a lot of time is spent to introduce the various characters, and if you are looking for an intense climax you won’t find it. Personally, although a step below Down By Law, I consider Mystery Train a great film that shows the American society as it was rarely seen on the big screen in the late eighties and that even now few directors have the courage to show. Jarmusch usually works with poverty, racism, and sadness, but he manages to do it in movies that aren’t depressing thanks to his strange, slightly surreal sense of humor, even though all stories take place in a realistic world. I think this is his main strength as a director! Ciao!