Mystery Train(1989) was Jim Jarmusch’s first departure from black-and-white, but a sparse landscape is perfectly effective in color thanks in no small part to Robert Muller, who shot Jarmusch’s previous feature Down By Law(1986) and several, including Paris, Texas(1984) for Wim Wenders. The film’s contemplative long takes both emphasize the struggle to communicate that resides at Mystery Train’s and make the brilliant script stick. The film’s gritty and somewhat difficult style offers a cinematic contrast to the film’s somewhat novelistic structure—three stories linked by a shoddy Memphis hotel, the two men who run it, a gunshot, and Elvis. The characters from one story to the next never interact on screen, however; in this respect, Mystery Trainis a precursor to The Edge of Heaven(2007) more so than it is to Crash(2004).
These three stories—“Far From Yokohama,” about a Japanese couple looking for Graceland and Sun Studio; “A Ghost,” featuring an Italian woman stranded while escorting her husband’s coffin; and “Lost In Space,” which follows a drunk trio logically following Chekhov’s rules of guns and drama—are strongly linked thematically, as the characters we follow are always struggling to make a connection with others and with this (allegedly) seminal American city. It’s a continuation of the themes that Jarmusch explored in Down By Law, but a more confident attempt. In “Far From Yokohama,” Mitsuko (brilliantly portrayed Youki Kudoh) and Jun are disappointed by their trip to Sun Studio, unable to keep up with the quick-talking tour guide, and Mitsuko later cannot get a conversation out of Jun. One makes a remark that Memphis is just like Yokohama “with 60% less buildings,” suggesting that the American Dream is invisible to outsiders, a theme further explored in the next two stories. In “A Ghost,” Luisa is conned twice and then ends up in a hotel room with a woman who won’t stop talking, only to wake her up because she sees Elvis’ ghost. “In Space” is perhaps the most subtle, but also the most rewarding. Men of three different cultures (most memorably, Joe Strummer’s Johnny, nicknamed “Elvis” to his friends) end up on the run together, and their cultural distance is a joke for the audience but not the characters. Later, our understanding of the gunshot subverts a cultural expectation stated in “Far From Yokohama.”
The dynamics at work here in the smallest details and the holistic look are quite remarkable, a testament to Jarmusch’s strength as a writer. On a large scale, we see that regardless of language barriers, regardless of relations or intimacy, connecting is difficult for everyone. In all three stories, at least one foreigner fails to find what they wanted from America—be it a planned vacation, an unplanned stop, or a permanent life, perhaps stifled by unemployment in the case of Joe Strummer’s Johnny in “Lost In Space.” Yet it is sometimes the smaller moments that are the most memorable. Mitsuko and Jun’s first contact with an American is an apparently homeless black man asking for a light. “Oh, matches!” Mitsuko replies, relaying to Jun to pull out his lighter. The man then takes a puff, replies “thank you” in Japanese (much to the couple’s surprise), and walks away. Yet at the end of the film, the chatty woman from “A Ghost” asks if the train is going to Natchez. “Oh, matches!” Mitsuko replies again, but the woman walks away from the offered light, frustrated. In “A Ghost,” Luisa compliments the bus-boy’s hat that we see criticized by his boss in the other two stories.
Long before Tarantino was writing his highly-praised but largely stereotyped “cool” black characters, Jim Jarmusch was writing real, humorous, flawed, and surprising ones. The hotel clerks share a humorous and memorable conversation about a Japanese plum that Mitsuko gives them, a store-owner convinces Luisa to buy more magazines, and the black neighborhood’s only danger is the Englishman with the gun. It is as real and judgment-free a depiction of race and race relations as you can expect, one where foreignness is equated not with villainy but with honesty, be it good or bad.
It’s a shame, then, that despite all the brilliant small moments and the promise of the script, that Mystery Trainis so unadventurous. There is never anything thought-provoking suggested, and while Jarmusch wisely avoids the melodrama that future hyperlink films would over-rely on, he over-relies on his music, expecting the audience to relate the lyrics of songs they never hear clearly or entirely to the characters. Jarmusch also tries to familiarize us with Memphis by showing us the same buildings and letting us listen to the same radio station in each story, but these flourishes restate themes more than they add to them. Jarmusch wants us to know the city, but our rewards—recognizing the barber shop, hearing the report about the three robbers of “Lost In Space”—are more fun than revealing.
Mystery Train has no problem pitting your expectations against you, and that is one of many reasons it is so effective, be it the stories all together, individually, or the details. Its use of irony is superb, bringing new meaning to earlier moments in a way that will reward repeated viewings. It’s easy to see that Jarmusch has a lot to say here, but he seems a bit too shy to really come out and say it.