Director: Jim Jarmusch
Writer: Jim Jarmusch
DP: Robby Muller
Editor: Melody London
Score: John Lurie
Producer: Rudd Simmons, Jim Stark
Starring: Youki Kudoh, Masatoshi Nagase, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Cinqué Lee, Nicoletta Braschi, Elizabeth Bracco, Rick Aviles, Joe Strummer, Steve Buscemi
Distribution: Orion Classics
Length: 1 hr. 53 min.
The shot above appears twice in the film. There are three stories in Mystery Train, each about people from nations other than the United States coming to a small, run-down, cheaply-sustained community in Memphis, Tennessee. This shot lets us see outside the community for the first time, and we find that it's as foreign from the more prosperous part of the city as each of the film's characters are from America.
There are three stories in Mystery Train, all taking place at approximately the same time and each about people spending just one night in Memphis (the original title of the movie was, in fact, One Night in Memphis). The first segment, titled "Far from Yokohama," is of a Japanese couple, Jun and Mitsuko (pictured in the shot above), from Yokohama. They've come to get close to the legacy of various American rock stars, particularly the one at the center of the film: Elvis Presley. Elvis is a mythologized figure in American culture, not only a man who left a mark on the history of American music, but the subject of all kinds of urban legends and conspiracy theories. Mitsuko mythologizes Elvis too; she's put together a scrapbook containing all kinds of significant people she thinks looks similar to him, from the Buddha to Madonna to the Statue of Liberty. Jun, meanwhile, prefers Carl Perkins Jr. to Elvis (although his hair is like Elvis's), and doesn't seem very satisfied with Memphis. It's uncertain whether he's actually not having a good time or if it's part of his too-cool persona (not entirely unfounded - Jun can do some pretty great lighter tricks) that he wears for the whole movie.
Mitsuko is the perfect partner for Jun because she can see through his stoic, insouciant exterior, but also respects the mythology behind his persona. Jun eventually shows that he appreciates it, even if he doesn't acknowledge it. "Far from Yokohama" was based on a play director Jim Jarmusch was writing in which an argumentative couple find that their fighting is actually something that brings them together. It seems he's accomplished that here, with two characters who outwardly disagree but respect each other because of that disagreement. When they seem to go a little too far with their bickering, Jun stops talking and lets Elvis play on the radio for Mitsuko despite his own distaste. It's a sweet, wordless moment.
The second story, titled "A Ghost," is about Luisa, a woman from Rome who came to Memphis on her way to the airport so she could head back to Italy for her husband's funeral. Soon after she arrives in Memphis, Luisa is confronted with a couple different people who try to scam her out of her money; one of them tries to trick her with a story about Elvis's ghost. Fortunately for her, she has money to throw around; she sees right through the scams whenever someone tries to deceive her, but she pays them off anyway. It's the easiest way to get them to leave her alone. And yet, later we hear her say she doesn't want to be alone.
Instead of getting support in her time of loneliness and loss, she keeps running into people who want to take advantage of her. Still, she buys into the Elvis mythology for the sake of finding at least a little comfort the one night she has to stay in Memphis. And, eventually, she does, from Elvis himself manifesting in his most illusive, legendary form.
The place where she finds support is the place where the central characters of each of Mystery Train's three stories find support: A small, cheap hotel off the side of the road. The clerk's bright red suit clashes with the rest of the film's cool, muted grey color palette like a beacon in fog. He's an accommodating man, patient and reasonable with all of the unconventional customers that meet him throughout the night, accompanied by a bellboy who seems a little less open but ultimately does whatever the clerk tells him.
Mystery Train is a funny film, and one of its jokes is especially clever: The clerk tells the bellboy to clean up some broken glass on the floor of the hotel lobby, so the bellboy sweeps it up and wantonly throws it all out the door into the street. The clerk is perfectly satisfied with this. It highlights the separation between the sanctity of the hotel interior and the rest of Memphis outside; the hotel is also a part of a community on the decline, but as long as it can remain a haven while it's still around, it doesn't matter what kinds of scams, crimes, and messes of broken glass there are outside.
The third story in Mystery Train is titled "Lost in Space." It's about an expatriate Englishman named Johnny, his friend Will Robinson, and his brother-in-law Charlie. Johnny commonly hangs out with Will in a bar generally patronized only by black members of the community. Like Jun, Johnny's not an Elvis fan - he prefers Carl Perkins Jr. - but the other guys in the bar all call him Elvis anyway because of how he styles his hair. Johnny doesn't have a lot of love for the Elvis culture - in fact, he expresses that he hasn't been too happy with anything about his life in America. This is where he finds some common ground with Will, who has a little bit of resentment for the Elvis culture because in his eyes it shows how white people own everything, even the spaces black people chose for themselves. We recall that Elvis was once accused of stealing from black culture.
There's a tense, bittersweet moment that speaks to the camaraderie Johnny feels toward Will while also speaking to how imperfect their relationship is They go to a liquor store, and Will has a look at some bottles for less than a second before the cashier tells him to put it down and makes an offhand racist comment to Johnny. Immediately, on principle, Johnny takes out a gun and steals the bottles. Will protests, and we know Johnny is being an impulsive fool, but we also understand why Will resents the community and that Johnny wants to demand respect for that resentment.
Johnny is a firebrand, Will laments in a resigned sort of way, but Charlie is a total pushover. We're introduced to him as a barber giving a haircut to random walk-in after closing time. When Johnny takes out his gun he orders Charlie to grab the bottles, and he does without protest. Will talks about his distaste for the television show Lost in Space for using his name in such a milquetoast show that appeals to a white, upper-middle-class sensibility; Charlie remembers it as one of his favorites, but doesn't seem particularly enthusiastic about it and doesn't care to defend it.
Jarmusch was smart to place this segment at the end of the film; by disrupting the understated peace of the previous two segments with this one's sudden acts of violence, he makes the audience feel the dire reality of the situation that will bring Johnny and Charlie to confront themselves. Johnny starts to externalize his problems a little less, and Charlie starts to think about his own complacency.
Mystery Train paints a picture of a community on the decline because it was left behind, far off from the plane of economic prosperity. In such a situation, it looks to the Elvis mythology for stability, for an assurance that it has value. The film depicts characters who are all slightly lost in America, far off from the cultures they're comfortable with. They also look to the Elvis mythology, hoping to find something that will make it easier for them to say what they need to say or believe what they need to believe. Like the hotel clerk, it's accommodating. It communicates with them all in their own way. And like the hotel, it becomes a haven. Also like the hotel, it's no less temporal than the fading community surrounding it. But that's OK; everyone's only spending one night in Memphis.