It's only appropriate that Jim Jarmusch penned his nostalgic portrait of Memphis without ever having visited the city. "Mystery Train" filters the legendary American city through the eyes of wanderers who are just passing through: two Japanese tourists eager to see Graceland, a recently widowed Italian woman stuck on a one night layover, a British expatriate and Steve Buscemi, who always looks like he's from somewhere else.
Jarmusch's Memphis is drawn with just a few brushstrokes. Aside from a brief trip to Sun Studios, it's not the Memphis of myth either, but one consisting mostly of a bar, a diner, and the rundown hotel where all of the characters from the film's three separate storylines stay but never meet. You could find similar locations in any city, yet the setting has a very specific feel if for no other reason than the constant presence of Elvis that haunts every storyline, literally in one case, more figuratively on the radio or in constant appearances in portraits, statuary or in photographs. Though some of the film's characters prefer Carl Perkins, there's no doubt that Elvis is the once and future king of Memphis.
"Mystery Train" is divided into three separate, slightly overlapping storylines. In the first chapter, "Far from Yokohama," two Japanese tourists roll into Memphis on a train (trains are a ubiquitous background presence in the film) on a pilgrimage to Sun Studios and Graceland. Jun (Masatoshi Nagase), with his perfectly coiffed hair and stoic expression, is part hepcat, part gangster, and one hundred percent pushover for his adorable girlfriend Mitzuko (Youki Kudoh) who loves t-shirts almost as much as she loves Elvis.
Jarmusch's films are usually about the gradual accretion of small details rather than the articulation of a conventional narrative. After a brief, disappointing trip to Sun Studios, Jun and Mitzuko check into the rundown Arcade Hotel (where all the film's characters wind up) where they spend the night together. Jun sulks while Mitzuko chirps happily away as she sorts through a collection of Elvis photographs which she matches up with venerable landmarks such as The Statue of Liberty and Madonna. Mitzuko is a collection of quirks who would be a terminal irritant if not for Kudoh's irresistible charm and Jarmusch's unquantifiable ability to "get away" with the kind of preciousness that has rendered so many copycat American indie films unbearable. His detractors (few, but vocal) would disagree, accusing him of felonious hipsterism, but no matter. Jun and Mitzuko's relationship is so tender (she keeps track of the number of times they've made love) that any excessive cuteness is not only forgivable, it is downright essential.
The other two sections aren't quite as cute, but Jarmusch's obvious fondness for his characters and actors imbues each with a sense of whimsy even when death looms large. In the simply titled "A Ghost," Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi) has just lost her husband and has to spend a night in Memphis due to an airline delay in transporting his coffin. After escaping from a fast-talking conman, she escapes to the Arcade Hotel where she share a room with the even faster-talking Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco) who has just broken up with her boyfriend. One of the few true locals in the movie she is, oddly enough, on her way out of town.
The final segment, "Lost in Space," is the most densely plotted. In short, British expat Johnny (the late great Joe Strummer,) Dee Dee's now ex-boyfriend, wallows in self-pity and needs to be rescued by his friend Will Robinson (Rick Aviles) and his sort-of brother-in-law Charlie (Steve Buscemi). Things do not go well for anyone but you can probably guess which future wood-chippee gets the shortest end of the stick. Type casting.
Though the stories never directly intersect they are loosely connected by both setting and sound. A radio station, DJ'd by Tom Waits who may be reprising his character from "Down By Law," plays in every segment and an off-screen gunshot is heard by everyone at one point. But it's the hotel that brings everyone together even while sequestered in their numbered, Elvis-decorated rooms. The front desk is staffed by a night clerk played by an animated Screamin' Jay Hawkins and a bored bellboy played by Cinqué Lee. They function as a wry chorus, witnessing the eccentricities of each of the protagonists but not judging. Hawkins never once budges from his seat (throne, really) yet might be the film's most dynamic character, blessed with expressive eyebrows that deserve their own credit.
Again, it's the quiet moments, the affectionate observations, that power the film. Hawkins advises Lee not to eat a Japanese plum given to him by Mitzuko, then snatches and swallows it in one lightning-quick motion. Everyone calls Johnny "Elvis" but he despises the name; he's a Carl Perkins man. And when there are two beds available for three men, it's Buscemi who gets the thread-bare chair. Other details suggest a deeper story. When Mitzuko hears the gunshot Jun deadpans that "This is America" (echoing a similar line by Mili Avital in "Dead Man") but it is the Italian Luisa who matter-of-factly identifies it as "probably a .38." Thinking back to the secret-service-type guards stationed next to her husband's coffin, perhaps there is something a little more sinister in her background than suggested by this offhand one-liner.
"Mystery Train" was Jarmusch's first color film since his seldom-seen (at least before Criterion released it as an extra on "Stranger than Paradise") debut feature "Permanent Vacation." Lensed by Robby Müller, who had also shot the black-and-white "Down By Law," the drabness of the rundown hotel and its neighborhood is jolted to life by flashes of red, most noticeably in Screamin' Jay Hawkins' fiery suit, the kind of suit that only Screamin' Jay Hawkins could get away with wearing. Müller's best collaboration with Jarmusch is the luminous "Dead Man," but he gives this little slice of Memphis a quiet, low-key beauty that lingers in the mind's eye.
"Mystery Train" was previously released on a quickie DVD by MGM in 2000. It was shown in 1.66:1 with a competent but unremarkable transfer and with unreliable subtitles in the ‘Far from Yokohama" section.
Criterion has released "Mystery Train" as an anamorphic 1.77:1 transfer with digital restoration "supervised and approved by director Jim Jarmusch." The Blu-Ray features significantly sharper colors (most obviously the vivid reds that are so important to the film) than the old MGM release and the image quality of the 1080p transfer is, of course, razor sharp. It represents the usual upgrade over the SD version of this release; sharper contrast, brighter colors, though the SD transfer is very good in its own right. You can't ask for too much more.
The Blu-Ray is presented in LPCM Mono. All dialogue is sharp and the music, both the pop songs and the original score by John Lurie, are crisp though not particularly robust.
The film can be watched with no subtitles, with optional subtitles only for the non-English (Japanese and Italian) dialogue, or with subtitles for everything. The subtitles in the "Far from Yokohama" segment are an improvement from the MGM release.
Jarmusch doesn't like to do commentary tracks. Instead, he repeats a feature offered on Criterion's "Night on Earth" release and fields e-mail questions from fans. This feature clocks in at a hefty 69 minutes in which the director answers more than 30 questions.
The disc also includes excerpts (17 min.) from the 2001 Screamin' Jay Hawkins documentary "I Put a Spell on Me," and a short "Memphis Tour" (18 min.) about some of the locations used in the film.
The only other features are a collection of Polaroids and a Photo Gallery.
The insert booklet features an essay by critic Dennis Lim and an essay by music historian Peter Guralnick.
Overall, the extras are fairly modest by Criterion's standards. Neither the Hawkins excerpts nor the "Memphis Tour" are particularly enlightening, but the Q&A session is very entertaining.
"Mystery Train" isn't Jarmusch's best film, but like all of his movies, it is compulsively rewatchable, affording viewers the opportunity to revisit old friends on a memorable night in one of America's most mythic cities. The mystery train is forever coming ‘round ‘round the bend, sixteen coaches long and always with room for one more.
Criterion has released "Mystery Train" on both Blu-Ray and SD. Though the extras are merely adequate, this justifies an upgrade from the MGM release in either format. Criterion continues to make its way through Jarmusch's career and I'm crossing my fingers for a super-deluxe treatment of "Dead Man," Jarmusch's masterpiece and the finest American film of the 90s.