Mystery Train

Mystery Train (1989)

Mystery Train first published by EyeforFilm

“Hotels and airports are the things I forget,” declares 18-year-old Jun (Matasoshi Nagase), explaining to his girlfriend Mitsuko (Youki Kudoh) why he photographs the rooms where they stay, but not the places that they visit.

Indeed, it is the common setting of a low-rent Memphis hotel over one eventful night that offers spatio-temporal unity to the three otherwise disparate stories that make up Jim Jarmusch‘s Mystery Train – and it is forgotten places more generally (old train station waiting rooms, seedy diners, darkened pool halls, cheap liquor stores, even the last remaining footage of a heavily graffitied Stax Records) that make up the background texture of Jarmusch’s strange elegy for faded Americana. Here nostalgia reigns, love is lost, death is never far away, and everything is haunted by the ghost of Elvis, “young and beautiful looking, like in 1956”.

In Far From Yokohama, Jun and Mitsuko have arrived in Memphis by train on a pilgrimage to find the King of rock and roll – or at least Carl Perkins. In A Ghost, an Italian widow (Nicoletta Braschi), awaiting transit arrangements for her husband’s coffin, allows various locals to take advantage of her temporary presence in the city. In Lost in Space, a depressed, pistol-toting Englishman (Joe Strummer, frontman of The Clash) who has just been dumped by his long-term girlfriend (Elizabeth Bracco) and laid off from his blue-collar job, goes on a bender, and then on the run, with his luckless would-be brother-in-law (Steve Buscemi) and an African-American work colleague (Rick Aviles) who just happens to share his name with a character from a popular sci-fi television show. Under the half-watchful eyes of a strikingly dressed Night Clerk (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins) and a Bell Boy (Cinqué Lee), all these characters’ narratives will pass each other like trains in the night.

With his foreign status, his retro quiff, his permanent scowl, his obsessively polished boots and his practised way around a Zippo lighter, Jun is the Jarmusch anti-hero par excellence: a narcissistic outsider so self-consciously determined to be cool that he ends up looking ridiculous, which of course only adds to the cool of the film itself. In fact, Jun is only one of several elements in Mystery Train that instantly evoke the signature style established by Jarmusch in his previous best known features, Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and Down By Law (1986). For the film is a deadpan comedy of errors, scored by John Lurie, starring cult musicians (Hawkins, Strummer, and Tom Waits voicing a late-night radio DJ) alongside oddball character actors, and using alien perspectives to probe the frayed edges of the American dream.

Shot by Jarmusch’s regular cinematographer Robby Müller, Mystery Train looks like a semi-animate Edward Hopper painting. Its hyperreal colours and iconic tableaux ooze retro chic, but are also thick with the melancholy of lives long since overlooked, left behind or merely passed through. It is a darkly droll affair, so understated that its thematic ambitions register only after the viewer has begun checking out and moving on.

strap: Jim Jarmusch’s melan-comic movie sees faded, marginalised Americana passed through and over three times at a Memphis hotel

Anton Bitel