“Mystery Train” is Jim Jarmusch’s Love Letter to the Ghosts of Memphis

Mystery Train Youki Kudoh & Masatoshi Nagase in Mystery Train (Orion Pictures)

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For January we’re celebrating the work of godfather of independent film Jim Jarmusch. Read the rest of our coverage here.

One of the first lines in Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 film Mystery Train is spoken by an 18-year-old Japanese tourist, who looks out of the window of a moving train and reminds his girlfriend that “There’s a time difference in America.” He means time zones, but in his own stoic, understated way, he hints at something greater. Mystery Train is Jarmusch’s story of time out of joint, set in a great American city haunted by a ghost of such great immensity that it seems to attract living beings like a gravitational pull. Named after one of Elvis Presley’s first songs, Mystery Train is three vignettes strung together by a shared setting and an undying fascination with the King himself.

In the first vignette, two Japanese teens, a boy and a girl, make the sacred pilgrimage to Memphis to see the legendary Sun Studios (where Elvis made his first records) and Graceland. The two are decked out in rockabilly fashion and share an obsession with ‘50s rock-and-rollers – though the boy (Masatoshi Nagase), who affects a disinterested hipster cool, prefers Carl Perkins. In the second, an Italian woman (Nicoletta Braschi) is stuck in Memphis for a night when the plane transporting her deceased husband’s body has to make an emergency stop. Puttering around town, she buys magazines, encounters a creep who claims to have picked up Elvis’s ghost hitchhiking, and then encounters Elvis’s ghost herself. The final segment is about three men, one Memphis local and two newcomers, who have to avoid the cops after a late night visit to a liquor store doesn’t go the way they expected, and who eventually find themselves sharing the same hotel as the Japanese kids and the Italian widow. 

The plot, as such, in Mystery Train, is mostly an excuse to launch into moments, conversations, flights of fancy. It’s a film about atmosphere and about feeling more than anything else, and in its own fashion succeeds remarkably. The first segment, with the two Japanese kids, is the strongest, but all have their strengths, and they’re linked by a shared feeling of the past and the present existing in the same space.

The plot, as such, in Mystery Train, is mostly an excuse to launch into moments, conversations, flights of fancy.

There is an almost sleepy feeling that Jarmusch establishes through static wide shots showing small groups of people conversing on empty streets and in sparsely-populated bedrooms. The Memphis (and the America) of Mystery Train is a ghost town in more ways than one. The sidewalks and shops are curiously empty of extras, and even the famous Sun Studios seems to be a forgotten obscurity tucked away in a corner, as only a scattering of people show up to the guided tour of the room where Elvis cut his first single. 

All the characters in Mystery Train wind up in the same place, whether they’re there by choice or by accident. And as the hotel manager played by R’n’B singer Screamin’ Jay Hawkins tells one visitor, all the rooms in the hotel cost the same, no matter who you are or what you want. There’s a balance in Jarmusch’s vision, an equality that affords equal weight and poetry to all the characters, who are watched over by the specter of Presley like a distant god. In his song “Graceland,” Paul Simon sang that he “had reason to believe / We all will be received / in Graceland,” a sentiment that is shared by Mystery Train, whose characters are all pilgrims (intentional or not) on a holy road. “Elvis is still the King,” Youki Kudoh’s giddy tourist Mitsuko dreamily sighs, collecting photos of the King that resemble ancient Babylonian sculptures, the Statue of Liberty, and even the Buddha. 

Cinqué Lee & Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in Mystery Train (Orion Classics)

This is a film with deep levels of charm, but Jarmusch is not content to simply indulge in feel-good nostalgia. Over the course of the three stories, the journey through Memphis grows darker and uglier. In the final section, Joe Strummer of The Clash plays a bitter man who, in a drunken fit of impotent anger, commits a near-deadly armed robbery and holes up with two poor saps who are along for the ride. Dead drunk and sweating the night away in a dingy room, Strummer eyes a portrait of Elvis laying against the wall. “Why is he fucking everywhere?” Strummer asks. And this isn’t the beautiful, virile young Elvis of Sun Records, forever frozen at the age of twenty-one, that’s seen in the other hotel rooms – it’s the fat, ruddy Vegas Elvis, soon to be dead. The train that makes its way through Memphis and through the American past must contain both: the young and the old, the healthy and the sick, the quick and the dead.

The Memphis that gave the world some of its greatest music also struck Martin Luther King dead at age 39.  All of this plays out with Jarmusch’s characteristic understated humor, delivered by a game cast that includes Jarmusch favorites like Steve Buscemi and cameos by musical heroes like soul singer Rufus Thomas. It’s the style, the sense of play, that keeps all this from becoming too pretentious or navel-gazing, and it’s an easy, breezy film to watch, never straining in its attempts to tell a story about oddball characters in a great locale that’s loaded with meaning and the ghosts of the past.

It’s been about thirty years since Mystery Train’s release – that’s about as much of a time difference between us and the film and there was between the film and Elvis’s prime. But nothing about the film feels unnecessarily dated or stuck in a particular moment no longer relevant to us. The same kinds of pilgrims are making their way to Graceland today, and the music feels as simultaneously alive and untouchable today as it did in 1989. It would be cliché to say Mystery Train hasn’t aged a day; perhaps it’s more accurate to say it hasn’t faded away.

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