Mystery Train

Jim Jarmusch, 1989

The recurring theme of estrangement, predominately from a character's native land, is considered a  hallmark in the films of Jim Jarmusch, with the audience often viewing the director's America through foreign eyes, with films such as Down by Law, and Night on Earth using an alienated protagonist to give an outsider's perspective towards events. Between the successes of the aforementioned features, Jarmusch directed Mystery Train, an anthology film set in Memphis, Tennessee, that follows three separate story lines, involving characters foreign to America, that are linked by a run-down hotel they each spend the night in, various locations throughout the city, several loose character links and most notably, Elvis Presley. Unlike other anthology films, such as New York Stories or Paris je t'aime, Mystery Train's triptych stories do all follow a consistent storyline, but are told parallel to one another, showing each characters experiences in, and perspectives of, Memphis, all amounting to the same eventual climax.

Far From Yokohama, the first story in the anthology, follows a young Japanese couple, Jun and Mitsuko, on an excursion to Memphis, with the prospect of visiting Graceland during their trip across America. For the feature segment, Far From Yokohama is an inviting story, acting as an almost precursor to Sophia Coppola's Lost in Translation, a film with similar themes of alienation, loneliness, boredom and culture shock, that also follows an out-of-place couple who find mutuality also in a hotel, and perfectly blends deadpan humor with elements of drama. The second story of the movie, A Ghost follows Italian widow Luisa, astray in Memphis after experiencing trouble escorting her husband's coffin home, after becoming conned out of money on two occasions, and being confronted by two men outside a diner, she finds solace in the Arcade Hotel. Whilst falling asleep, Luisa is visited by the ghost of Elvis Presley.

The third and final feature Lost in Space follows recently single, and unemployed Englishman 'Elvis' (Joe Strummer) as he drunkenly flaunts a gun at a bar, before leaving with his ex-girlfriend's brother Charlie (Steve Buscemi) and his friend (Rick Aviles) and commiting a robbery and possible murder at a local liquor store. In an attempt to hide out and lay-low, they too retire to the Arcade Hotel. This segment could been seen as polar to the themes of the previous two features, displacing the reoccurring ambient theme of isolation, with a fast-paced use of crime and violence, most notably towards the climax of the story. Mystery Train has been influential on many other filmmakers, most notably the work of Quentin Tarantino with the three-tiered, interwoven storylines and the Lost in Space segment being more than an obvious inspiration for Pulp Fiction, using the same culmination of intense, humorous and wild events as Jarmusch's film, that is far too often associated as being an original characteristic of Tarantino's work. 

With Mystery Train being Jarmusch's first venture into colour film making, briefly abandoning his signature black-and-white bergman-esque cinematography, which he would most notably revisit in Dead Man and Coffee & Cigarettes, his employment of European-film legend Robby Müller is greatly received, with Müller capturing the beauty of everything from a cityscape, to an empty run-down hotel room. What remains, is one of Jarmusch's finest and most original works. Whilst today he is considered one of the greatest independent, cult directors in the world, staying true to his art without compromise, Mystery Train is the film that brought him out of the art house, and in front of an audience.
words by danny walker.