Mystery Train (1989)
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch | 119 minutes | comedy, crime, drama | Actors: Masatoshi Nagase, Yûki Kudô, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Cinqué Lee, Rufus Thomas, Jodie Markell, Nicoletta Braschi, Elizabeth Bracco, Joe Strummer, Rick Aviles, Steve Buscemi, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Royale Johnson, Winston Hoffman, Tom Waits
The back of the American dream through the eyes of foreign passers-by, Jim Jarmusch offers us with the touchingly clumsy ‘Mystery Train’, a sketchy triptych set entirely in Memphis, Tennessee. By the way, don’t take the word clumsy too seriously. A film by master evocator Jim Jarmusch is like walking into a smoky nightclub and taking a deep breath. Looking around shaking your head; then you stumble home drunk, broke, yet carefree.
Jarmusch has got it right with the weeds of America, and that his actors can’t act very well sometimes, like Joe Strummer as a suicidal amateur crook in the third triptych, so be it. Other characters, on the other hand, are carved out of marble, such as in ‘Mystery Train’, for example, the unforgettable hotel officials played by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Cinqué Lee. From their rundown 24/7 establishment, two Japanese tourists chase the ghost of Elvis. He (Masatoshi Nagase) a rock’n’roll freak with a poker face; she (Yûki Kudô) is the engine behind love.
It seems nothing more than charming and apparently little happens; yet the first film part is the most memorable. Iconic for the film is the shot of the two sitting at the foot of their hotel bed, both covered by the girl’s lipstick, trying to make her hypothermic boyfriend laugh; Legendary is the scene in which the two ‘have sex for the eleventh time’, a tragicomic display due to the contrast of the pumping poseur and the girl’s ability to see love in it.
As easily as Jarmusch sketches the human condition, he abandons his characters. The second part, in which the new widow Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi) shares a room with local DeeDee (Elizabeth Bracco), who has just kicked her boyfriend, while waiting for her return flight, is the least convincing. When the ghost of Elvis appears as a hologram in their hotel room and starts singing ‘Blue Moon’, we think a little too much about David Lynch. It is nice that the grieving Luisa can see the ghost and chatterbox DeeDee cannot.
The third part is best enjoyed as a story, with the now deceased Strummer (singer-guitarist of The Clash), as a willful robber. Strummer is extremely charismatic, although he and his buddy Will (Rick Aviles) actually struggle to play drunken rascals. Steve Buscemi is a real bumbler, and it wouldn’t surprise us that the Coen brothers took inspiration for ‘The Big Lebowski’ from this film part, in which Buscemi is allowed to ratify Murphy’s Law as a kind of Donny-avant-la-lettre.