Slow-Burning Americana Report: ‘Mystery Train’

Small town America may rightly fear that it has been overfilmed; certainly after watching Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Mystery Train’, one imagines that it would be difficult to show anything new that isn’t already telegraphed from or curled up inside this vision of Memphis.

What a gorgeous, beguiling film – beginning with the incongruous image of a young Japanese couple traveling through Tennessee industrial wasteland. We are in a space that is at once familiar and alienating; and inviting – for in about fourteen seconds at the beginning of ‘Mystery Train’, Jarmusch reels us in to ask the only question that really matters at the start of a movie: ‘What’s going to happen next?’

Where is this train going? Well, we know from the title that Jarmusch isn’t going to tell us. Deeper than that, we know from his other films that he doesn’t really care about the future.

What matters is now.

Where we are. Why we’re here. No matter how far we travel we’re going to face the same inner conflicts that we had before. So it goes for the characters in Jarmusch-land; who, while they may not immediately seem to remind us of ourselves, become familiar through the repetition of their ordinary extraordinary actions.

A debate between lovers over what music to listen to; a slightly unhinged barber struggling with his red and white pole; a woman unnerved by a strange encounter at a diner. ‘Mystery Train’ is an ally of Scorsese’s ‘After Hours’, which itself takes place in a heightened vision of New York City as hell; Memphis here is a kind of magical hybrid of sacred and profane, as if an old Western saloon town was built around the hotel in ‘Barton Fink’.

Jarmusch creates worlds in which people are humane to each other; or when they’re not, we feel it. His characters are stuck in their ways, and noticeably more like real people because of it. His vision of the American micro-urban landscape is as evocative as the way Ansel Adams saw mountains. His exploration of the weirdness of American mythology represents a dimension of the culture that doesn’t easily fit into red and purple state schismatics; his characters are authentically American (or American dreamers), but they are neither wearing ten gallon hats, nor would they read the Huffington Post.

The guy knows how to do atmosphere; how to pace his whole world to within an inch of its life. He does incredibly sexy incredibly well; and utterly normal utterly right. He can put a skinny guy from Yokohama in a hotel window and make him look like James Dean. He can get Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to wear a red suit as if no one else on earth has the right. He can make you feel nostalgic for trains, aware of the absence of peace and quiet in your own life, amused at the mistakes of others, because they are your mistakes too; and he’s not afraid to make you wait til you remember.

‘Mystery Train’ looks like it was made tomorrow, in a world where computers had not replaced heartbeats as the cinema’s focus, so clean and crisp is the transfer on Criterion’s Blu-Ray; and Jarmusch’s welcome habit of avoiding audio commentary in exchange for recording answers to questions submitted by thoughtful fans is a genuinely enriching addition to this disc’s splendid special features. Extras aside, ‘Mystery Train’ is so good I’m going to watch it again tonight.

2 responses to “Slow-Burning Americana Report: ‘Mystery Train’

  1. I liked this film too…understood it in a way that I could not put words to- so I did not, as there was no need to echo now what I read here. Very well said.
    Perhaps you have seen or would enjoy-
    The Band’s Visit
    another film that spoke to me, though I could not answer, perhaps a review is in order still…
    Found your blog via love for and from John O’Donohue, will visit again. Be well, take care-

  2. Charles Laster

    And Joe Strummer, from the Clash, is in it. You have to love scremin’ Jay Hawkins suit, although, if you stare at it too long, you’ll get retinal damage.
    And the scrapbook the japanese Gril keeps, including elvis look-alikes, including the statue of liberty and Madonna.