A pair of Japanese teenagers come to Memphis to visit Sun Records and Graceland. A stranded traveler shares a room with a woman on her way out of town. A trio of men have a wild night that involves a liquor store hold-up. Everybody talks about Elvis Presley, whether they like him or not. Jim Jarmusch's "Mystery Train," an anthology of stories that all take place during one long night in Memphis, works a lot like the music that features so prominently in it - the more events repeat and become familiar, the more you begin to anticipate certain elements, and the more enjoyable it becomes. I don't want to say too much more about the plot, because learning how it unfolds and seeing how all the pieces connect together is a lot of fun.
Of the three stories, the most memorable is the first, titled "Far From Yokohama." Mitsuko (Youki Kudoh) and Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) speak very little English, and they carry a single suitcase between them, overstuffed with knick-knacks. Jarmusch likes looking at the American experience through the eyes of foreigners, and all three segments in "Mystery Train" feature them. However, the adventures of the two Japanese kids kick up the most culture clash. When they check into the run-down Arcade Hotel, there is initial miscommunication with the night clerk (Screamin' Jay Hawkins) and they present the bellboy (Cinqué Lee) with a plum for a tip. However, the duo is instantly sympathetic, playfully bickering like so many other young couples on a long trip, and through their eyes it's Memphis that looks foreign and exotic.
Each segment is fairly plotless and made up of small incidents. The pacing and the characters meander along, not having anywhere in particular to be, but eventually arriving where they need to. This is especially true in the case of Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi), a waylaid Italian who has to spend the night in Memphis, and keeps being taken advantage of by the locals that she meets. She wanders around town, losing money at an alarming rate, but this creates the opportunity to include vignettes like her encounter with a man played by Tom Noonan, who relays a ghost story about Elvis. By the time Luisa is sharing a room with Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco), a sad-sack motormouth who obviously won't be paying her half of the hotel fee, it's clear the money isn't nearly as important as the experience. Braschi's performance, which keeps the audience guessing about her motives and level of understanding, is a highlight of the film.
Finally the last act features three local Memphis residents who get drunk and get in trouble. However Johnny (Joe Strummer), Will Robinson (Rick Aviles), and Charlie (Steve Buscemi), two white men and one black, spend most of their evening having casual conversations about everything from family troubles to race relations. Johnny, nicknamed "Elvis," hates that he bears a resemblance to the dead crooner. Will Robinson, naturally, does not care for "Lost in Space." Charlie, played by the ever put-upon Steve Buscemi, didn't want to go out in the first place. Being more dialogue heavy, this story loses some of the atmosphere of the first two, but has the most energy and momentum. Jarmusch's writing is great here, subtly injecting a lot of humor into the interactions, building on small grudges, old resentments, and mild annoyances.
I haven't seen many Jim Jarmusch films. The ones I have seen kept me interested, but not particularly engaged. His heroes always felt a little too off-kilter, a little too cool to be approached. His structural experiments could get distracting and we did not share many points of reference. Here, Jarmusch plays with multiple storylines and musical references abound, but he almost seems to parody the notion of hipster cool, with every character that tries to keep up a front, like Jun or Johnny, all inevitably revealing themselves to be a hopeless poseur. More than any of his other films, "Mystery Train" has a liveliness to it and a broader strain of absurdity that makes it feel okay to laugh and just enjoy the performances. Some others I want to single out are Youki Kudoh as the bubbly Mistuko, and Cinqué Lee, who fails to make a bellhop uniform work in the best way.
"Mystery Train" was Jarmusch's first film in color, and while his choices are sometimes a little obvious - red objects draw the eye too often - he displays the same visual stylishness as he does with his work in black and white. His penchant for the blues also remains throughout, with Tom Waits on the radio, Elvis Presley on everyone's mind, and the soundtrack full of many more whose names I don't know. Clearly, Jarmusch wants to pay tribute to these musicians and the place where their paths converged. However, I wonder what real Memphis residents think of the film, which doesn't portray their hometown in the best light. Jarmusch keeps the camera in seedy hotels, train yards, and dive bars, and shows streets full of closed-down storefronts.
But for these characters and these stories, where else would you be?