A Japanese couple, an Italian widow and a brokenhearted Englishman walk into a hotel in Memphis. Well, not at the same time. Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 film, Mystery Train, is composed of three parallel narratives with a common premise: foreigners in Memphis, a comically dire hotel where all our protagonists land up, and problematic relationships with Elvis. The characters traverse the same landscape: a desolate strip of boarded up shops, run-down bars and a 24-hour restaurant. They all cross paths, just not simultaneously.
Jarmusch cleverly keeps time in Mystery Train with subtle cues; in the first story Mitzuko and Jun make love, in the second, we hear the lovers’ moans through the wall of Luise’s hotel room. As Jun surveys the town from his hotel window, a precariously driven ute slips by, and in the third story we realise it contains Johnny (nicknamed Elvis for his quiff) driving around the town drunk after a run-in with a liquor store clerk. Each tale is punctuated by Elvis’ Blue Moon serenading our sleepless characters on the wireless, and a mysterious gunshot heard (or felt) by the characters at daybreak.
The hotel serves as a character in itself. The night clerk and bell-boy are a common thread through the three tales, and provide comic relief between the chapters. Each guest remarks on the lack of a television in their hotel room, here radio is king, and prisoner – kept captive by chains on the bedside table. A tacky portrait of Elvis is hung in each room, occupying pride of place above the bed. Which begs the question, why else would anyone come to this place? “There he is again, I can’t get rid of this fucking guy,” Johnny laments.
The city is bland and blank – it didn’t define Elvis, it forced Elvis to be out of this world. Jun remarks that Memphis is like Yokohama with 60% of the buildings missing. What Jun is really trying to get at is Memphis looks empty, cleared out, hollow. Without Elvis, Roy Orbison et al. Memphis is simply a run down town that has seen better days. Jarmusch has each protagonist unknowingly walk past the derelict art deco movie theatre that once housed Stax Records, the label that signed soul legend Otis Redding and where Elvis recorded three albums in ’73. By ’75, Stax was bust, and a year after Mystery Train was made, the site was demolished. Each character passes Stax without a second glance.
Memphis’ people made the place mean something, but the foreigners are not quite sure what to make of it. And what happens to them? Nothing really. They just move on to their next place, the plot lines are left unresolved. Mitzuko tells Jun, “When you’re dead you never get to sleep again, which means no more dreams.” Jun and Mitzoku, Luise and Johnny, keep wandering and dreaming. Closure comes in death, and they’ve still got time. Like all road movies, this is just a pit-stop.