Mystery Train (1989) opens with a sort of image that recurs with almost dreamlike regularity throughout the work of Jim Jarmusch: the world as seen from a moving train. Traveling abroad for the first time, teenage Yokohamans Mitzuko (Youki Kudoh) and Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) are drawing near Memphis. The shape of their window recalls the widescreen aspect ratio. Through it American landscapes pass like some cinematic travelogue. Soon they’ll disembark and, like the protagonists of the fantasy in which some fissure in reality allows one to slip from the audience and into the movie, Mitzuko and Jun will explore the largely abandoned streets of a mythical place.
They’ve come to Memphis as rock and roll pilgrims, dressed for the part, Mitzuko in her black leather jacket with the wonderfully ridiculous ‘MISTER BABY’ emblazoned on the back, the taciturn and flamboyantly affected Jun sporting a vintage rockabilly ensemble topped with immaculate pompadour. They debate whether Elvis or Carl Perkins was the real king. Mitzuko keeps a notebook filled with images that compare Elvis’ visage with those of the Buddha or the Statue of Liberty. As is often the case in Jarmusch’s work, especially the immediately preceding films, American culture attains substance when appropriated by outsiders. Through their eyes Jarmusch’s comic confluence of history, geography, legend and everyday absurdities chug into life.
Mitzuko and Jun’s holiday, in which they taste sexual freedom, confront the eerie indifference of realized desire, and confirm that it is indeed cool to be 18 and far from home and in Memphis, is the first of Mystery Train’s three distinct yet interconnected and chronologically simultaneous episodes—another Jarmusch motif, variations on a theme. In the second tale, Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi, excellent), forced to overnight in Memphis while en route to Italy with her dead husband’s remains in tow, wanders the city and attempts to fend off petty grifters with little success before spending the night with a lonesome chatterbox (Elizabeth Bracco) and a confused ghost (Stephen Jones). In the third, a drunken Englishman (The Clash’s Joe Strummer), also ostentatiously pompadoured, suffering from the loss of his job and his woman, takes to Memphis’ streets with a workmate (Rick Avilles), a barber (Steve Buscemi) and a gun, eventually getting into some serious trouble and winding up at the nexus where all Mystery Train’s routes converge, a somewhat seedy hotel overseen by a red-suited night clerk (outré R&B singer Screamin’ Jay Hawkins) and his comparatively diminutive bell hop (Cinqué Lee), a vaguely Beckett-like pair whose brief scenes of interaction constitute some of the film’s finest moments of elegantly evoked down-time.
Photographed in Edward Hopper muted tones by Robby Müller, who had already shot Down By Law (86) for Jarmusch, Mystery Train is a gorgeously composed and carefully coloured film whose dramatic trajectories are in each case essentially a lark, elevating the simplest of conflicts to the level of finely crafted art. Themes of the misleading significance of familial bonds—Buscemi’s wonderful as the barber thrown for a loop when he discovers his brother-in-law never actually married his sister—and the dangers of living in a city lorded over by ghosts and undercut by racism and poverty provide these stories with just enough gravity to keep them grounded, yet at bottom Mystery Train is a superb example of a certain strain of deadpan, unhurried comedy over which Jarmusch possesses a singular mastery.
It’s also a remarkable document of not only a great and neglected American city, but of several mavericks of cultural importance—Hawkins and Strummer, Tom Waits and Rufus Thomas—coming together to play. This final element of Mystery Train is nicely highlighted on Criterion’s new DVD and Blu-ray packages, which feature excerpts from a documentary about Hawkins and a short film that tracks changes in Memphis from the birth of Sun Studios to the making of Mystery Train and right up to the present.