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With: Masatoshi Nagase, Youki Kudoh, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Cinqué Lee, Rufus Thomas, Jodie Markell, Nicoletta Braschi, Elizabeth Bracco, Sy Richardson, Tom Noonan, Stephen Jones, Joe Strummer, Rick Aviles, Steve Buscemi, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Rockets Redglare, Tom Waits (voice)
Written by: Jim Jarmusch
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 110
Date: 05/01/1989

Mystery Train (1989)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Memphis Spell

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Like his early films (Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law), Jim Jarmusch's fourth film is another that employs segments, rather than one continuous narrative flow, which led some detractors to wonder if Jarmusch was capable of "telling a story." It apparently didn't occur to them that perhaps Jarmusch was after more than just a story. His Mystery Train perfectly sustains a mood of disenchantment and disillusionment, re-asserted from many different angles. If the film has a flaw it's that the depressing mood can often overwhelm Jarmusch's deadpan humor.

All three segments take places in Memphis, Tennessee. It begins on a train, as two Japanese tourists approach, eager to see more of Elvis Presley's stomping grounds. Perky Mitsuko (Youki Kudoh), who wears a leather jacket with "Mister Baby" written on the back, is visibly excited, but the morose Jun (Masatoshi Nagase), who wears a pompadour, quietly asserts that Carl Perkins was better. As they arrive in town, they -- and we -- notice that Memphis is far from a dream city. It looks run-down, barren, and burnt-out. Most places appear closed, and nobody is working. People can be heard fighting through the walls. Even the tour of Sun Studios is small and disappointing.

Mitsuko and Jun check into a hotel, which will be the connecting thread of the three stories. They talk, sometimes about the mystery of Elvis, and sometimes just to pass the time. They make love, sleep, and they wake to the sound of a gunshot. In the second story, an Italian woman, Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi), is transporting her husband's corpse back to Rome, but she has an unexpected overnight layover. In a diner, a creepy man (Tom Noonan) tells her a ghost story about Elvis. She walks into the same hotel, and runs into the gabby Brooklyn girl, Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco), who is leaving her husband; they agree to share a room for the night. Luisa sees the ghost of Elvis in her room. We hear the same songs on the radio, and the same gunshot.

In the third segment, we meet Dee Dee's "husband," known as "Elvis" (Joe Strummer), and her brother Charlie (Steve Buscemi), a barber. Elvis and a co-worker pal, Will Robinson (Rick Aviles), have been laid off, and Elvis has lost his girl. They all get drunk and Elvis unexpectedly shoots a liquor store clerk, so they check into the hotel to cool off. All of our characters are just down the hall from one another (Dee Dee and Luisa are next door to Jun and Mitsuko) and they never meet, but they are still connected by a city, a time, and a mood.

The hotel's desk clerk (Screamin' Jay Hawkins) and bellhop (Cinqué Lee) are perhaps the funniest characters, and they appear in all the segments, often repeating or expanding upon the same routines. They spend the entire movie at the desk, talking about plums, Elvis' weight on other planets, and playing with a pair of sunglasses. There are other odd stabs at humor, like the fact that Luisa is bullied into buying a huge pile of magazines she doesn't want; she carries them around for the bulk of her segment, but their presence isn't really very funny and nothing ever really comes of the joke; it's mainly a reminder that the newsvendor (Sy Richardson) was desperate to drum up business.

In another scene, Charlie cuts the hair of a late-night customer, who has a rant about the Chinese eating macaroni and cheese. Charlie makes a comment about how he usually doesn't cut hair at night, but again, the joke just falls flat; it's more a desperate scene than a funny one. Nevertheless, the humor is here. It's so deadpan that it sneaks up on you. It could be a line delivery ("Jiffy Squid," or a discussion of the TV show "Lost in Space"), or a sustained moment, like Jun with lipstick smeared all over his face. Robby Müller was the film's cinematographer, and his still, lingering images really capture a texture; in another world, these could have been the framed pictures that hang over the hotel beds.

The main theme here is the tragic, drastic juxtaposition of Elvis' magic spell, and the reality of what Memphis looks like years after his absence. It clings to his image ("I can't get rid of that guy," one character complains), but seems incapable of moving forward, of producing any new commodities. Yet three times in the film, the radio DJ (the voice of Tom Waits) plays "Blue Moon" (from the Sun Studio era), and it seems to stop everything, and make everything seem all right for two minutes and 38 seconds.

The Criterion Collection has released a gorgeous looking Blu-Ray edition of the film, complete with an uncompressed mono soundtrack. Jarmusch does not provide a commentary track, but he records a track in which he answers questions sent in by fans; it's far more amusing and interesting than any old commentary track. Other extras include excerpts from a documentary on Screamin' Jay Hawkins, featurettes about Memphis and the film's locations, and a photo gallery. The booklet includes essays by Dennis Lim and Peter Guralnick.

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