1989’s Mystery Train isn’t Jim Jarmusch’s first foray into film which finds its setting somewhere that the director didn’t live for an extensive period of time – but it was the first time he shot a feature in color. And even if Memphis wasn’t a place that Jarmusch was familiar with as one of the town’s homegrown denizens, his relationship with the city is a part of the film.
In keeping with a motif that crops up again and again in Jarmusch’s work, the three seemingly disparate, but interrelated vignette’s boast characters that are all foreign to the city. Reaching beyond just foreigness within an American context, the principals in each of the film’s sections are from other countries – Japan, Italy and England respectively. Jarmusch here continues to insert a sense of endless wondering into his narrative.
That’s even how he began the film.
Rolling through the country side, viewers accompany two tourists on their way to Graceland and other assorted spots in and around Memphis. The talkative girlfriend Mitsuko (Youki Kudoh) and her withdrawn boyfriend Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) arrive in town, roam around a bit, take in a troubling tour at Sun Studios and eventually arrive at some motel. Oddly enough, the desk is manned by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Spike Lee’s younger brother Cinque. Despite the pair’s dubious acting history, scenes with the two as its focus are all pretty hilarious.
But the pair also functions as the fulcrum for all of Mystery Train’s characters. Everyone needs to interact with them.
Gaining entrance into the motel doesn’t appear to be difficult, much in the same way that Quentin Tarantino’s Four Rooms basically allowed for any sort of weirdo to land a space. But Jarmusch’s film also presages that latter work by stringing together the narrative with a single, unifying thread. Tarantino’s film uses the bellman and Jarmusch uses a gun shot.
The difference even serves to differentiate the directors as Tarantino is able to allow dialogue to push everything forward, Jarmusch pushes silence into his film – the Japanese boyfriend, Jun, is pretty adept at sitting around with his mouth shut.
Regardless of how Mystery Train’s set up, though, the film works as some middle ground between the director’s early career and what was to follow. Jarmusch continued to work in episodic fair and used travelling as a main theme in his work. But with more (kinda) mainstream work, like the following Night On Earth, the director moved away from his character studies of cast-offs and incorporated some truly engaging characters.
That’s not to figure that anyone Tom Waits portrays in these films from the ‘80s wouldn’t be a cool guy to hang out with, but it’s easy to guess that the folks populating cabs in Jarmusch’s next film were going to be perceived differently than this assortment of drunks and criminals. In the end, it’s worth noting that there aren’t too many movies with Joe Strummer strutting around with a gun, stone drunk and accompanied by Steve Buscemi. Even if there was, though, it might not be as good as Mystery Train.