Mix together a bag of offbeat characters, desolate streets, a loosely constructed plot, and enough weirdness and you might end up with a Jim Jarmusch film. Mystery Train feels like a Jarmusch film, and like taking a smooth ride where you meet quirky personalities, but it’s characters remain inaccessible. Sadly, Mystery Train never quite leaves the station.
- Director: Jim Jarmusch
- Writer: Jim Jarmusch
- Cast: Youki Kudoh, Masatoshi Nagese, Nicoletta Braschi, Joe Strummer, Rick Aviles, Steve Buscemi, Jay Hawkins, Cinque Lee
Three stories unravel overnight, all centering around an old hotel in a desolate part of downtown Memphis. The first story involves two Japanese tourists (Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagese) exploring the city’s historical landmarks such as Graceland and Sun Studios. A second story involves Luisa, an Italian woman (Nicoletta Braschi) on her way to Italy with her husband’s coffin, but stops in Memphis and ends up sharing her hotel room with Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco). The third story centers around the antics of Johnny (Joe Strummer) and his friends Will Robinson (Rick Aviles) and Charlie (Steve Buscemi), who try to reel him in.
Jim Jarmusch writes his characters for specific actors, and then jumps into telling a story. This explains why many of his films feel languid. The characters are probably the most interesting thing about Mystery Train, especially the ones played by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Joe Strummer of The Clash, and Cinque Lee (Spike’s younger brother). The performances are strong, revealing behavior that seems consistent with the types of quirky characters we meet, although the situations themselves are not entirely believable. Yes, all the stories are loosely tied together by a hotel and one gunshot. Otherwise, these stories merely exist in the same space but without consequence. Because the dialogue is minimal, with some dialogue barely above mere rambling, Mystery Train seems as though it would be just as watchable with the volume completely turned off. The cinematography of Robby Muller, however, does enhance the film’s appeal by providing beautiful imagery of ordinary and desolate settings.
The plot lacks direction just as much as the characters. The humor is also usually understated, though at times it feels forced — especially during the first story. The restrained dialogue is well-written and executed, but the dialogue concerning the debate about Elvis and Carl Perkins gets a bit tiring. In the last story, the arguing between the three men is sporadically funny but overall uninteresting. Much of what is interesting in Jarmusch’s films requires a more theoretical understanding of conventions. To appreciate when conventions are broken, one must also know what they are. Mystery Train is no exception. What we get is a film that certainly feels different, but not different enough to be memorable.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
Mystery Train is an interesting film but not a great one. If a film is determined to meander, it better be interesting enough or funny enough to hold its head up high. Mystery Train doesn’t have enough of these qualities to claim such a distinction. I agree with Mr. Ebert’s review that what we get here is some type of a “romance between a big city and its obscure corners where outsiders, seekers and the forlorn go to spend the night.” I appreciate how Ebert’s gives credit to Jarmusch for his camerawork, which seems to dictate movement more than follow it. Moreover, Ebert praises the film’s isolation of certain interiors, rather than “establishing” a whole location. These points, along with an acknowledgement of Jarmusch’s manipulation of time are well made. Nevertheless, these are all fine points in theory, but we just don’t get enough here to fully appreciate them.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: Good
Do you like Mystery Train? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: My Fair Lady
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films. Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train this week, he now has 314 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.