When your train arrives in Memphis, Tennessee, you have to go down—a descending staircase takes you beneath the tracks and into the main station—before you can get anywhere. It’s an apt visual metaphor, and also the route taken by two arriving Japanese tourists at the beginning of Jim Jarmusch’s masterpiece, Mystery Train (1989). After all, if you want to learn anything worth knowing about America, you’re going to need to get familiar with its underbelly, and Memphis is a good place to start.
Though a promise of a more mythic and glamorous Memphis seems to exist somewhere offscreen—the Home of the Blues is, of course, also the hometown of the King—it is perhaps only a Memphis of the mind. Certainly, no one in the three triptychs that make up Mystery Train ever manages to glimpse anything resembling Graceland. Instead, like a black hole at the center of this universe is the Arcade Hotel, a sorry, dilapidated flophouse without even TVs, run by a cranky night clerk (Screamin' Jay Hawkins) and bored bellboy (Cinqué Lee). In each of the film’s three stories, the characters gravitate, with varying degrees of agency, toward the hotel: Mitsuko and Jun (Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase) find their way there after visiting Sun Studios and wandering the streets of Memphis in “Far from Yokohama”; subsequently, in “A Ghost,” an Italian widow, Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi), ends up renting a room with a freshly single chatterbox named Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco); and in the last section, “Lost in Space,” down-and-out Johnny (Joe Strummer, in a role specifically written for him by Jarmusch) rooms with his brother-in-law, Charlie (an all-time performance by Steve Buscemi), after a botched liquor store hold-up.
These stories take place concurrently. In addition to the setting of the hotel and the recurring presence of the night clerk and bellhop, the pieces of the triptych are linked by the voice of a late-night radio DJ (Tom Waits), Elvis’s haunting cover of “Blue Moon,” and the sound of a gunshot. It’s a construction that gives the film the structure of a puzzle, although without the intensity or urgency of a puzzle film. Mystery, obviously, gets closer to correctly describing the vibe; ghost story closer still. For one thing, there actually is a ghost. For another, there’s something unsettling and very nearly noir-ish about the Memphis painted by Jarmusch—and yet, it is never as serious as a noir, since Mystery Train is, above all else, extremely funny.
Legend has it Jarmusch never actually visited Memphis before writing the script for the film; the city loomed large in his imagination, as it does in the minds of his principal characters. The director uses the dissonance between these cultural myths and reality—not to shed light on America, per se, but to prod us into a dimly lit room for contemplation and then to lock the door. What’s the hurry, anyway? There are ghosts to keep us company, and dawn will come soon enough.
Mystery Train screens tonight, May 10, at Roxy Cinema.
Jeva Lange previously considered this film in 2016.