Granted, writer and director Jim Jarmusch isn't everybody's idea of independent-filmmaking energy unbound. His previous movies (Permanent Vacation, Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law) have been called minimalist, marginal and lulling. And that's by those who say they enjoy them. His detractors use words like dull, petty and numbing. The spare but richly funny Mystery Train (the final part of a trilogy begun with Stranger) ought to go a long way toward defusing the naysayers. It's the least standoffish Jarmusch effort to date. For that, he owes one to Elvis.
Presley's voice jump-starts the film. "Train I ride/Sixteen coaches long," he sings, repeating the phrase and letting the seductive clickety-clack rhythm carry him along. The number conjures up fun, heartbreak, romantic longing and a rueful sense of time going by. Just the sort of emotional quicksilver Jarmusch tries to capture with his cinematic tone poems. He uses Elvis's "Mystery Train" vocal over a vivid opening image: a train streaking into Memphis. Elvis's Memphis. The home of Sun Studio, where he took his first step into legend.
But to quote the late Bette Davis — "What a dump!" The modern Memphis Jarmusch reveals (he shot, selectively, on location) is a ghost town of empty streets, rundown buildings and vagrant lowlifes. The Arcade Hotel, where the film's major characters will spend some part of the next twenty-four hours, looks creepily deserted. The Arcade's night clerk, played by a remarkably low-decibel Screamin' Jay Hawkins, trades Elvis trivia with the bellboy, CinquT Lee, Spike's gifted younger brother. These two characters are the connecting links between the three distinct episodes that make up the movie.
In the first episode, two teenage Japanese tourists — the glum Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) and his bubbly girlfriend, Mitzuko (Youki Kudoh) — train into Memphis to visit the shrine of their King, Elvis. Actually, Jun prefers Carl Perkins, but he gives Presley his royal due. After a long day on the hot streets and a fast visit to Sun Studio, Jun and Mitzuko check into the Arcade and make love under a garish portrait of Elvis (one comes with every room). Later, listening to the King croon "Blue Moon" on the radio, Jun gazes out the window at the neon-lit streets and distant train tracks. "This is cool," he tells Mitzuko, a cigarette dangling from his lips and Memphis at his feet. For a moment, with the help of Robby Mnller's evocative camera work (this is the first Jarmusch film shot in color), it is. By an act of will, two foreigners have made Memphis the exotic, hip Mecca they want it to be. Similarly, the Hungarian visitor in Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise and the Italian immigrant in Down by Law turned America into their best fantasies in a way most of us who live here cannot. Come morning, the spell broken by the sound of a gunshot down the hall, Jun and Mitzuko move on.
In the second episode, Jarmusch uses Luisa — a young Italian widow beautifully played by Nicoletta Braschi — to offer a fresh perspective on the familiar. Unlike the Japanese couple, Luisa is not on a pilgrimage. She has been forced to stop in Memphis overnight before flying her husband's body back to Rome. Elvis means little to her, though she is amused when a wacko in a coffee shop (an eerie Tom Noonan) announces that he recently picked up the dead King hitchhiking. It seems Elvis had a comb he wanted the driver to pass on to Luisa. She makes her getaway to the Arcade, where she lets herself be talked into sharing a room for the night with an American named DeeDee (Elizabeth Bracco) who can't stop gabbing about how she just broke up with her Brit boyfriend. After DeeDee drifts to sleep listening to the same Elvis song that Jun and Mitzuko heard on the radio, the King's ghost shows up with a message for Luisa. The moment, too good to give away, is enchanted. An embarrassed Luisa never mentions her experience to DeeDee the next morning. The sound of a gun firing is too much distraction.
In the third episode, the Arcade is all shook up by the arrival of DeeDee's boyfriend, Johnny (Joe Strummer, formerly of the Clash), his pal Will (Rick Aviles) and DeeDee's barber brother, Charlie (Steve Buscemi). Johnny has persuaded the others to help him rob a liquor store, and now the comically inept trio is holed up in one of the hotel's tackiest rooms with a portrait of Elvis, a cache of booze and a gun. That's where the shot comes in (no fair telling how). Jarmusch lets this episode ramble on too long, but his point is clear: Outsiders can make us view the mundane in a new way. But these drunken local yokels are too busy running in circles to see the magic.
Jarmusch sees it for us by charting a series of parallel lives that never meet. He finds humor in these missed connections, but the transience of life also moves him. His bracing, original comedy may be mostly smoke and air, but it's not insubstantial. Mystery Train insinuates itself into the memory and lingers on.