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Dan the Man's Movie Reviews

All my aimless thoughts, ideas, and ramblings, all packed into one site!

Mystery Train (1989)


trainElvis truly was the King, baby.

Memphis, Tennessee is known for a lot of things. Most importantly, the hotbed for a lot of early rock ‘n roll, featuring the one and only Elvis Presley himself. Over the course of one day, a bunch of random people will navigate through the city and do things their own way. There’s the kitsch-obsessed Japanese couple (Masatoshi Nagase, Youki Kudoh), who seem to love one another a whole lot, but the language barrier keeps them away from fully attaching themselves to Memphis fully. Then, there’s a trio of amateur robbers (Joe Strummer, Rick Aviles, Steve Buscemi) who take one night to roam free and act wild, crazy and drunk like they’ve never done before. And an Italian immigrant (Nicoletta Braschi), who has no clue of where she actually is, tries to survive Memphis for this one night only. Meanwhile, there’s a somewhat eccentric and creepy night clerk (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins) at a hotel who seems to have a lot more to do with these folks than you’d think.

Look out, Memphis!

Look out, Memphis!

Writer/director Jim Jarmusch likes to take his time with his movies. That’s a known fact and in certain ways, it can make his movies feel like boring slugs, than actual slam-bang, fun and compelling thrill-rides. Those who expect the later, probably know not to go to a Jarmusch flick, whereas those who expect more time, consideration and care given, know exactly what they’re getting into with Jarmusch and it’s why so many people love and adore him.

That said, Mystery Train definitely shows Jarmusch taking as good a time as ever to tell anything resembling a story that, sometimes picks up its speed, sometimes lingers around, and other times, seems to meander without any sort of sense of direction that you wonder just where the movie’s going, or what the hell it’s even getting at. Yet, that’s also what’s kind of compelling about it – the movie literally could go anywhere, at any time, and while Jarmusch is never known for his shocking bits of violence, the way he makes Memphis out to be here, other than a pretty cool place to live, is that it can be somewhat dangerous and capable of taking down any person, at any time. Of course, Jarmusch wasn’t just focusing on the violence aspect of the whole story, but there’s that sense and feeling that makes however many small, quiet moments, still feel somewhat tense.

At the same time, though, Jarmusch is also taking his time with developing this story, which can sometimes make it an interesting watch, if not always fully satisfying picture altogether.

I'd hang with them for a night. And then some more.

I’d hang with them for a night. And then some more.

If anything, Mystery Train shows that Jarmusch can toy with his audience just as much as the next auteur, but sometimes, it can’t help but feel like he’s taking an odd detour for the sake of doing it. For instance, every chance it seems like he’s going to go somewhere with a clear plot-point, he switches things up, brings something random and cryptic into the picture, has us scratching our heads, and wondering just what it’s all about. It’s the same thing that Haneke does, but whereas his movies have a point for their sometimes sheer randomness and unpredictability, for Jarmusch, it can’t help but feel like he’s bored.

The only bit of this movie that feels like Jarmusch with a clear head on his shoulders, no tricks to be found whatsoever, is the final subplot involving the three buddies who go on something of a drunken crime-spree. Of course, this is the closest resembling Down by Law, so it’s obviously going to work in Jarmusch’s favor, but it also shows Jarmusch not pulling any punches and telling us a clear, concise, and rather straightforward story, with the occasional detour into goofiness.

But the goofiness doesn’t overtake the subplot, which is why it works best.

The rest of Mystery Train, unfortunately, runs into this problem. There’s a lot to like for sure, as the movie’s funny, interesting to see how it all connects, and well-acted by virtually everyone involved, however, it’s not asking all that much to expect a movie to follow some sort of pattern/rhythm, especially when said pattern/rhythm seems to actually be working for itself. Maybe I’m just not nearly as much as an indie-kid as I make myself out to be, but sometimes, I don’t mind convention and formula.

Oh well. Sue me.

Consensus: Even with his usual brand of goofiness and oddball charm, Jarmusch’s Mystery Train can sometimes detour too far into crazy town, losing sight of the sometimes very strong narrative it’s working with.

7 / 10

We've all got that feeling.

We’ve all got that feeling.

Photos Courtesy of:Media Life Crisis

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