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Throwback Review: Mystery Train

Arcade Hotel - Mystery Train (1989)

Looking back on Jim Jarmusch’s career, there’s a de facto split between his films: everything prior to Mystery Train, and everything after it. Lack of color, just enough plot to require a change of locale, and poetic, drowsy words from minimal casts cloud the first half; bursts of tonal color, increasingly complex, intertwined narratives, and expanded casts build the second. Of course, the Jarmusch essence of a begrudging coolness is apparent throughout.

Mystery Train itself is a mix of both halves of the Jarmusch career trajectory, a pivoting point. Similar to Down by Law and Stranger than Paradise, it features three distinct segments, only this time, each segment features different characters whose plots overlap and brush along one another. It sings a quiet love song for the idyllic, dusty Memphis, Tennessee and the music it produced. Three plots all converge at the same hotel where the booming Screamin’ Jay Hawkins is the concierge—and portraits of Elvis hang above the beds. His ghost also makes an appearance in this hotel.

Memphis is the main character of the film. It’s introduced to us by the cool-but-greasy Japanese couple whose personalities play a ping pong match, bouncing around the city once off the train, debating the superiority of Carl Perkins or the King himself. Their movements show us around a largely abandoned town with shuttered windows—an edgy, Jarmusch-styled Memphis that could be the only place to birth rock & roll. An Italian widow steals the screen in the second plot, stranded in Memphis from a faulty flight, dealing with its beggars and local schemers with a passive, sweet impatience. The third plot features another non-national, an alcohol fueled Brit flashing a loaded gun at a local bar. Two friends take him to spend the night drunk driving.

The Japanese duo want to see Sun Records and Elvis’ Graceland mansion—Sun Records proves to be a bit much for them, with a tour guide that speaks too fast for most English speakers. Other tourists stand idly, eyes glazed over. They decide to find a place to stay. The Italian lady has an altercation with a seedy scam artist who tells her the story of a hitchhiker going towards Memphis hoping to see the home of Elvis. The story features a paranormal twist when its revealed that the hitchhiker himself is Elvis. The conman later follows her down the street, and she finds safety in the hotel. The Brit robs a liquor store and subsequently gets piss-drunk while driving around with his two friends. Police alerts on the radio make them look for a place to hide away. Jarmusch pulls down a curtain for us to demonstrate how a group ends up at a hotel on any given day, seeking refuge from the streets of Memphis.

Elvis’ “Blue Moon” tacks through the film, ensuring it stays true to ‘sex, drugs, and rock & roll.’ At some point in each segment, the characters hear the track on the radio, temporally connecting their fates. All three plots connect at the very end with the pop of a gun shot. A day in Memphis.

Nitehawk Cinemas is screening Jarmusch movies throughout January. Movie times and details here



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