Mystery Train Review
Live in the UK and mere mention of travelling by train will drive even the most environmentally aware of us back to the comfort of our cars. Standing nose-to-armpit, perfectly aware of the perilous state of the track beneath us and limping through the suburbs of London in slam-door rolling stock twenty years out of date, there is little romance in the typical British train journey. Think of the US, Canada or mainland Europe, however, and the romantic imagery of huge express trains cutting through gorges, passing by great rivers, descending from snow-covered mountains or emerging from mile-long tunnels comes immediately to mind - Jack Kerouac both On The Road and coming down from a summer spent fire-watching on Desolation Peak, interailing on an overnight train from Paris to Amsterdam, Kraftwerk singing of the Trans-Europe Express, Johnny Cash pining wistfully for the freedom of movement by train as he rots in Folsom Prison and Elvis Presley singing of the mystery train, sixteen coaches long, that took his girl away.
In Mystery Train, a flea bitten Memphis hotel brings together three stories in one night. The first story sees two Japanese tourists, Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) and his girlfriend, Mitzuko (Youki Kudoh), pull in on a train and visit Sam Philips' famous Sun Studios, where Elvis, among many others, recorded his early hit singles. Sitting in their hotel room, they argue about who invented rock'n'roll - Carl Perkins (him) or Elvis (her) - and drift through the open night of Tennessee. The second story sees Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi), a young widow stopping overnight in Memphis before taking her husband's body back to Italy. Forced to share a room with DeeDee (Elizabeth Bracco), she wakes to find the ghost of Elvis standing in her room. Finally, DeeDee's ex-boyfriend, Johnny (Joe Strummer) holds up a liquor store with the help of his friends Will (Rick Aviles) and Charlie (Steve Buscemi). On the run, they hide out at the hotel for the night until things cool off.
Each story is linked by Cinque Lee as the Bellboy and Screamin' Jay Hawkins as the Night Clerk, checking them in at night, checking them out in the morning.
The opening bars of Mystery Train, sung by Elvis Presley, hold onto a steady tick of time going by as Jun and Mitzuko enter Memphis, Tennessee. As with his previous films, Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law, Jarmusch's Mystery Train sees this time pass through daylight hours until his America opens up its unruly nighttime hours, populated by dreamers, drifters and loners, the flip side of the well-oiled corporate America that existed during the day. Jarmusch, who often takes the view of an observer, allows his films to look in on these lives, ones that would normally pass us by and, instead of letting their stories go untold, Jarmusch, if not treating these people as heroic, knows that within a city, it's often only at night that the real characters emerge. In Mystery Train, Jun and Mitzuko might as well be Jim Jarmusch himself, carried effortlessly into a city as a tourist and, in standing wide-eyed on the platform looking around at the heat and dust, sees a new story of America, yet one as old as the country itself, of dreams shattered, of lives begun again and of vast, open country waiting to be explored.
Jarmusch, therefore, tells a story of an America that is both legendary itself and populated by legends. In much the same way as John Ford pulled an American history out of himself, his preferred actor (John Wayne) and the Arizona desert, Jarmusch has a modern American history, one born in diners, hotels, pickups, bars and in the sound of all-night blues stations, much as Hal Hartley has renewed the story once again with hopeless devotion, Martin Donovan and suburban Long Island. In the hands of a director less convinced of his own placing of legends, Mystery Train could have ended up as no more than a kitsch celebration of Gracelands, fried peanut-butter sandwiches and white jump suits. Instead, this portrays the legendary Elvis - decent, hard-working and shimmering in the moonlight like a ghost but, most of all, it celebrates the people who believe in that legend and, in a hotel in which each room has its own picture of Elvis, Mystery Train tells of a place that keeps this legend alive.
Of course, in saying more about a feeling that exists in Memphis, Mystery Train is a wisp of a film, as insubstantial as the ether yet tries to capture the quicksilver of a magical America. The film begins and ends without a clear conclusion to any of the stories, there are no lessons learned and no Paulian conversions take place. Yet it would be uncomfortable if any such thing occurred. Jarmusch sees life as transient and in a single hotel over one night, he demonstrates just how disconnected we are from each other. As the train pulls out the next morning and the characters meet by chance and drift away once more, we are left with the impression that whilst we are only here for a moment, the legend of Memphis and of America rolls on.
Of the cast, not one actor really stands out but, then again, in a film like this, that's not the point when it's in the relationships that one of the strengths of the film lies. Therefore, much of the film's heart, at least that which is not in the director, can be found in the entirely natural interaction between Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Cinque Lee or between Masatoshi Nagase and Youki Kudoh. Joe Strummer does well, given that he's a rock star trying to act and Steve Buscemi is as good as ever as the whiny Charlie.
Yet, this is Jarmusch's film and, though he won't appeal to everyone, there is much to see in Mystery Train regarding one man's vision of a country.
Mystery Train has been anamorphically transferred in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and the transfer looks excellent. Jarmusch has taken the approach of letting every shot count and Mystery Train is similar to photographer Anton Corbijn's music videos in that each and every frame could be isolated from the film and would still look stunning.
Much of that is to do with the way in which Jarmusch has ensured there is a certain raw element to the way in which the film has been shot - the location shots and the backgrounds in which the action occurs look to be have been left undressed for filming. That this appearance is contrasted by quite stylised lighting with the strong use of neon lights in the Memphis night gives the film a natural look that is simultaneously slightly unreal, as much a nod to the reality of the city as it is to the dreams of the characters.
The only soundtrack is English 2.0 Stereo and sounds good - it's sharp, immediate and nicely balanced. It is also free of background noise, which is important given the periods of silence between the character's dialogue.
It's also worth noting the use of music on the soundtrack, all 1950's rock'n'roll with some beautiful songs including Elvis' version of Blue Moon, all linked by the unmistakable Tom Waits, once again appearing in one of Jarmusch's films,
Theatrical Trailer (1m56s, 1.85:1 Anamorphic. 2.0 Stereo): This is no more than a quick scan through most of the action with very little sense of the space offered by the full-length movie.
Mystery Train certainly will not be for every viewer. Jarmusch has ensured it does not have a conventional narrative but gives the film a sense that we are only dipping into the lives of these people and of the city itself. He does so in a way that less charitable viewers will describe as dull yet I would tend to say lulling. Certainly much of the film is uneventful but there is a beautifully still quality to it that allows the story to shine - not for everyone but recommended nonetheless.