By Afra Nariman
Mystery Train (1989)
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
Stars: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Cinqué Lee, Steve Buscemi, Nicoletta Braschi, Youki Kudoh, Masatoshi Nagase, Joe Strummer, Elizabeth Bracco
A tacky, squalid hotel in Memphis is at the center of three stories. A young Japanese couple is in town to see the home of the “King,” Elvis Presley, two strangers decide to share a room for the night after each have a long day, and a trio of amateur robbers run into some trouble while drinking that night. The hotel’s mysterious and funny concierge and the bellhop, along with the theme of Elvis and Rock n’ Roll, tie the stories together.
Have you ever stayed at a random hotel in a random city? I’ve taken my fair share of road trips, so I have. While staying in a city you are not very familiar with and in an unknown hotel full of strangers, it’s natural to wonder: What’s going on in the next room? What’s happening on the other side of town? Have I shared the same experiences as other guests at this hotel? How is my story connected to the stories of others around me? These questions often pop into your head while you’re on the road or staying in a different city than you’re used to — especially if it’s a small, relatively deserted town that you just happen to be passing through. The people who are visiting; why are they here? Their reasons may be similar to yours. And the people who live there; what are they doing on this random night that my life just happens to cross with theirs? — Chance can lead to some very interesting things.
Mystery Train is Jim Jarmusch’s first anthology film. He would later create Night on Earth and Coffee and Cigarettes, which are both more classic anthologies and offer a collection of completely separate stories. In this film, Jarmusch tells three distinct stories that are connected and intertwined through some of the characters, the city of Memphis, Tennessee, a tacky hotel and the spirit of Elvis. They all exist in the same cinematic world for one random night.
Jarmusch’s construction of the film’s setting helps to create a mystical and nostalgic mood that is felt in every aspect of the story. From a larger perspective, the film takes place in 1980’s Memphis, in a rather empty, rundown and romantically dim segment of the city. The choice of telling this story in Memphis serves the film well in multiple ways. Firstly, it allows Jarmusch the necessary circumstances to instill the spirit of the film, which is soul, blues and rock & roll, namely through Elvis. Secondly, the city serves as the perfect setting for a story about strangers in America. The city, as depicted in the film, feels separate from everywhere else in the world. In the same light, what happens in the world seems distant from the city and the characters in the film. This Elvis-infused, tacky, small American town feels like it’s own little world, known only to its inhabitants and briefly to the various strangers who are passing through to visit, and ultimately having their lives intertwine in the most subtle and elegant way.
From a more focused perspective, having a small town with so much history and character allows for the integration of very simple details within the stories that still have a certain depth behind them. It also creates the necessary atmosphere and circumstances that allow Jarmusch to sculpt the minute details that result in his creation of a network of faintly related stories. The spirit of Elvis hauntingly orchestrates all three stories that unfold on screen.
The first of the three stories in Mystery Train follows a young Japanese couple who have traveled to Memphis to experience the history of American music, especially Elvis Presley. The second story follows a recently widowed Italian woman who runs into an irritatingly talkative woman who can’t afford a hotel room; so they room together for the night. Before arriving at the hotel, the Italian woman is confronted by an enigmatically peculiar con-man who tells her a mysteriously haunting story that revolves around the ghost of Elvis. She later sees this ghost for herself. Lastly, a group of amateur robbers, one of which is an Elvis look-alike, seek to lay low at the hotel in the wake of a robbery gone drunkly wrong. Each story overlaps in time, signified by the identical radio host who comes on in the middle of the night and plays the same Elvis song for each set of characters to hear on the radio. Each story involves the characters checking into the unstable hotel, relatively by chance. They deal with the same people, hear the same things and look up at the same portrait of Elvis Presley that serves as the signature of each room in the hotel.
Perhaps the comedic soul of the film comes from the eccentric and rather oddball hotel manager and his young bellhop assistant. They greet the characters in each story and also help to reveal the overlapped time line of each story in relation to one another. Many transition scenes, or just “breaks” within the film revolve around a few comedic moments shared between them — the only two employees of the hotel. They ground us in the story and the mood, and provide us with necessary laughs in small, but lively spurts.
The idea that Mystery Train explores the most, which I touched on in the opening of this review, is the idea of strangers in a strange land. The part of Memphis that the film is set in seems to be the perfect city for such a story. What Jarmusch is expressing to us in this film is the nature of strangers and the effect or influence that they may have on our lives, that we often don’t stop to think about — however small or insignificant that they may be. Our stories, although they may not always be altered by everyone around us, are definitely part of the stories of others. America, as is true with many other parts of the world, is a land of strangers. Depending on the city that you live in, most of us don’t even know our neighbors that well. The very sense of community has evolved and loosened in it’s definition and value over the years. Mystery Train outlines how much could be happening in the lives of those around us, on any given night, in any given city, at any given location and under any given circumstances.
Although this film may seem overly-simple from the surface, it is extremely nuanced in both it’s production and the story’s construction. It’s romantic without focusing on romance, it’s funny without trying too hard to make jokes, and its human because it just is. It’s a portrayal of Jarmusch’s signature of highlighting the lives of misfits, but instead of focusing on just any particular individual misfits, it speaks to the idea that we are all misfits in the eyes of one another. We are all strangers living in a strange land. Even if we don’t initiate it, our lives intertwine with each other in the most subtle and unnoticeable ways. In a small town, such as the version of Memphis depicted in the film, the connection of people’s lives seem to be more prevalent. The three stories are surrounded by a certain liveliness and mystical aura. You could also see the influence that this film has had on cinema going forward, most notably on Quinten Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, which separates three intertwined stories in a similar way. Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 punk comedy, Mystery Train, is a marvel and a masterful portrayal of sculpted filmmaking, where small tactics and nuanced details make all the difference in the story’s elusive, yet captivating delivery, and on the reception of the audience who it is being communicated to.