Blu-ray Review: Mystery Train (Criterion Collection)

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I’m not much of a fan of Jim Jarmusch’s films, but this is only based on the small selection of his films I’ve seen, most of which are his later pictures while his more celebrated films have eluded me. I haven’t seen Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law or Dead Man, which tells me I haven’t really seen the Jarmusch most people think of when his name is mentioned. I have, though, seen his last four films starting with Ghost Dog and ending with last year’s The Limits of Control and I haven’t been much of a fan of any of them. So, when Mystery Train arrived in my mailbox I felt it would be yet another Jarmusch feature I just wouldn’t connect with… I was wrong.

I was gliding along with Criterion’s Blu-ray presentation of Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. It felt like another Jarmusch feature to me, relatively harmless, very little going on and more observational than anything else. I give credit to Jarmusch for never seeming to force his storytelling, it’s just that his stories have never really captured my attention and his dialogue never really caused me to snap to attention, that is until about 38 minutes into Mystery Train and I was hooked.

Telling three separate stories that all find their way to a small rundown hotel in Memphis, Mystery Train begins with the segment “Far From Yokohama” centered on a Japanese couple named Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) and Mitzuko (Youki Kudoh). The whimsical tourists bicker over where they should visit first, Graceland or the famous Sun Studios, with Mitzuko being a die-hard Elvis fan and Jun being much more a fan of Carl Perkins.

Much of the time spent with the couple simply serves as a walking tour of Memphis. Names of buildings are rarely mentioned as much as landscapes and rundown theaters serve as the landscape, beautifully captured by cinematographer Robby Müller, giving the #1 reason this film deserves a Blu-ray release. The neon lights of the Arcade Restaurant, which play a larger role in the second segment of the film, pop off the screen as Jun and Mitzuko cross the street to the Arcade Hotel.

The next morning, after a night where Mitzuko shows Jun parallels between Elvis and the Statue of Liberty and Buddha, Jun tries waking Mitzuko so they can visit Graceland. Asking for more sleep Jun tells her she spends half her life in her dreams to which she replies, “But sleep is wonderful. And when you’re dead, you don’t get to sleep ever again. Which means no more dreams.” By this time I was already gaining an appreciation for the film, but it was this line that sold me. So often we hear the phrase “you can sleep when you’re dead,” but Mitzuko’s interpretation of sleep puts much more importance on the activity than just a means of re-energizing. Her interpretation is to not sleep is to no longer dream. While Mystery Train was first released in 1989, this is an interpretation that could be even more relevant nowadays as the idea of 24/7 work schedules is becoming a much more regular thing as up-to-the-minute technology runs our daily lives.

I was shocked when I visited IMDb’s memorable quotes page for the film and didn’t find this specific line. Fans of Jarmusch films love to dissect every second of his films, included in this Criterion release is an hour-long question and answer session with the director answering questions submitted by fans and even the Criterion synopsis refers to the film saying how the three stories “converge in the city of dreams.” I think it’s a line that speaks to the heart of the film, certainly Jun and Mitzuko’s story. As the myth of Elvis hangs over every minute of Mystery Train it’s a wonder what Jarmusch would have dreamed up had Jun won the game of rock-paper-scissors in the film’s opening scene and instead of Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train” being the song the couple decided to listen to, what if it had been a Carl Perkins selection?

Mystery Train goes down about as smooth as any film can, though it has its share of tension as Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi) must deal with a pair of Memphis conmen (one played by Tom Noonan) and Johnny, Will and Charlie (Joe Strummer, Rick Aviles and Steve Buscemi) have a liquor store clerk problem to deal with. No matter the issue, it all leads back to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Cinque Lee playing the night clerk and bellboy at the Arcade Hotel.

Along with the previously mentioned Jarmusch Q&A, the supplements also include excerpts from a 2001 documentary on Screamin’ Jay Hawkins that deal specifically with his time working on Mystery Train, a new documentary titled “Memphis Tour” which looks back at the city and the locations where the film was shot and two separate photo galleries, one being a collection of Polaroids taken during the shoot and another featuring on set photos shot by Masayoshi Sukita.

Accompanying the disc is a 26-page booklet featuring two excellent essays that gave me a greater appreciation for the music used in the film as well as an excellent examination of Jarmusch’s convergence of three story-lines, or his lack thereof. Referring to the plot developments in Crash and Babel as “reductive fraudulence”, Dennis Lim appreciates Jarmusch’s matter-of-fact approach to how all his characters are occupying the same space and that he doesn’t try to use that to elevate the storytelling, but instead pays it no mind. Of course, several people can live in the same city, but that doesn’t mean their mutual existence has to make for some grand plot development, something I rarely find satisfaction in, Crash being a primary example. Even a gunshot ringing out in the early morning hours isn’t treated as something all the character need to run and explore. Jun replies to Mitzuko asking if the sound was a gun by saying, “Probably. This is America.” And they move on. Luisa simply responds to Dee De (Elizabeth Bracco) saying, “Maybe a .38.”

I thoroughly enjoyed Mystery Train. It’s cool and relaxed, the characters respond naturally to situations, yet it does have its share of eccentric and above the law moments that allow it to never get boring. Above all things, it makes me want to explore more of Jarmusch’s earlier work in hopes of catching on to just what exactly captured the attention of so many.

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