Jim Jarmusch’s films are set in many different times and places—the old west, Spain, 1980s New York—but they’re always iterations of his own particular imagined universe, where transient, somewhat lonely people meet by coincidence and have long conversations in diners, in taxicabs, in hotel rooms. Mystery Train (1989), set over the course of a single night in Memphis, is basically a set of three loosely overlapping vignettes; the characters from each piece end up taking rooms at the same fleabag motel (manned by a suave Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and his put-upon lackey of a bellboy, Cinque Lee). The guests include a pair of Japanese teenagers, a sad and pretty Italian widow, and three petty criminals. Although a gunshot rings out in the early hours of the following morning, not much happens. The teenagers, who happen to be rhythm-and-blues fanatics, argue about whether Elvis was better than Carl Perkins. The Italian widow agrees to share her room with a chatty New Jersey broad who’s just left her boyfriend. The three men, whose room is one step up from a crack den, get drunk and talk about the TV show Lost in Space—a conversation that would feel at home in a Tarantino movie.
Plot has never been Jarmusch’s strength; he’s basically a minimalist filmmaker, much better at small strokes than large ones. He is an excellent imaginer of characters and of individual scenes or conversations, which is why his compendium of two- and three-person numbers, Coffee and Cigarettes (2005), worked—if one of the vignettes flopped, he was able to start over with a new one in ten minutes. One of his first films, the wonderful Stranger Than Paradise (1985), is composed out of tableaux—strange, funny little moments. His films are less successful when he tries to handle big themes or tell more involved stories, as in Dead Man (1995), a visually beautiful but somewhat confused film that attempts perhaps too intently to engage with the myths of the Western genre. Mystery Train succeeds mostly because its stories are short enough that he doesn’t run into the kinds of problems involved in sustaining a full-length narrative.
Jarmusch’s minimalist, deadpan humor—very much influenced by the work of Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki—is grounded in character, particularly in characters’ idiosyncrasies, mannerisms, personal quirks, which rub together with those of other characters in bizarre ways. Perhaps no other director can succeed in generating humor simply by putting together two or three particular performers or by mixing and matching dialects, accents, and physical types—as when he gives us Steve Buscemi, Rick Aviles, and Joe Strummer in the final segment of Mystery Train. And yet this film remains suffused with melancholy; Jarmusch’s Memphis, with its empty streets and abandoned storefronts, is haunted by the ghosts of its rich history, by the lost souls who are passing through. And maybe by Elvis himself, who appears in the middle of the night as if conjured up by his own voice on the radio. It’s a lovely film.