Mystery Train (1989) is divided into three different, yet parallel and simultaneous stories, all of which take place over the course of 24 hours in Memphis. Each of the three sequences focuses on a different group of people and their relationship to this "Rock & Roll Haven."

In the first sequence two Japanese tourists, Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) and Mitzuko (Yoke Kudoh), get down from their train like self-confident explorers. They carry a red suitcase on a bamboo pole between them, and the girl, Mitzuko, totes a child’s leopard rucksack containing that modern-day first-aid kit: a Walkman and two headsets. They have come from modern Yokohama to Memphis, Tennessee, to see for themselves the shrines of Graceland and Sun Studios. They are quite fearless, being young; and like a latter-day apprentice gunslinger, Jun is ready to take on all-comers with his quick-draw cigarette lighter. An old black guy in the station asks them for a light. Neither realises its Rufus Thomas, the real King of Memphis. They wander around downtown and check into a run-down hotel. They argue. They make love. They listen to Elvis’s "Blue Moon" on the radio. In the morning they hear a gunshot.

The second sequence presents an Italian woman, Luisa – a widow, beautifully played by Nicoletta Braschi – who wanders around Memphis in a daze. 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. A stranger in a diner (Tom Noonan) sits down at her table. He tells her he picked Elvis up hitchhiking and gives her the King’s comb.

In the third sequence, the same afternoon that the Japanese kids arrive, and the Italian girl is wandering around, we follow three Memphis residents. Johnny (Joe Strummer) is in a bar getting drunk. His girl has left him and he’s lost his job at the cotton warehouse. He pulls out a gun and points it at himself. His friend Will (Rick Aviles) and his brother-in-law Charlie (Steve Buscemi) come and get him. They drive to a liquor store. Johnny steals two bottles of bourbon and shoots the owner. They drive around Memphis. "Blue Moon" comes on the radio. They hole up in the hotel. In the morning Charlie awakes as Johnny points the gun to his own head. They struggle. The gun goes off.

The sequences are connected by the Arcade Hotel, in which all of the characters spend the night. Through their different experiences in Memphis, we are presented with the kind of culture-clashes and blurring of American cultures that are so prevalent in Jim Jarmusch’s films. Jarmusch charts a series of parallel lives that never link. There is comedy in the missed connections, but also a distinct strain of pathos in a subtext reflecting upon the transience of life.

Once again in Mystery Train, Jarmusch articulates an enduring concern with the heterogeneous nature of American culture. ‘America is a kind of throwaway culture that’s made of this mixture of different cultures." Jarmusch has theorised. ‘To make a film about America, it seems to me logical to have at least one perspective that’s transplanted here from some other culture, because ours is a collection of transplanted influences.’

The voice of Elvis Presley jump-starts the film: ‘Train I ride/Sixteen coaches long.’ The phrase is repeated, the seductive clickety-clack rhythm conjuring up heartbreak, romantic longing and a rueful sense of time passing – the same kind of emotional atmosphere Jarmusch captures 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 Graceland and Sun Studios, where he took his first step into legend.

However, the modern-day Memphis that Jarmusch reveals is a ghost-town of empty streets, rundown buildings and vagrant low-lifes. The Arcade Hotel appears strangely deserted. The Arcade’s night clerk, played by a remarkably subdued Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, trades Elvis trivia with his bell-boy companion (Cinqu T Lee). ‘At the time of his death, if he were on Jupiter, Elvis would have weighed 648 pounds.’

Jarmusch’s particular sensibility proceeds via poetic incident as opposed to prose coherence, his films engage impressions rather than simply relate pure narrative. On the primary level "Mystery Train" concerns several key details; the passing of a train, Elvis singing "Blue Moon" on early morning radio, and a gunshot which operate to locate each sequence in a parallel temporal space. But since Jarmusch’s framework is abstract – looking at the same action from different perspectives – the details don’t necessarily reveal a wider story or dramatic narrative flow, but further emphasise the impressionistic effect. In the first sequence there is a wide shot of Jun and Mitzuko wandering through deserted Memphis streets which is later echoed in the second sequence as Luisa walks through the same streets. Each sequence is filled with distinctive details that define the quality and nature of place – the fast-talking tour guide at Sun Studios, the vacant Memphis streets, the run-down Arcade Hotel, the black club where Johnny hangs out, the sombre score structuring the basis throughout. In addition the narrative is dominated by character rather than plot, and personality is crucial – hence the talismanic cameos by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Joe Strummer.

Although Mystery Train has much in common with Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and Down By Law (1986) in terms of its nomadic protagonists, it seems apparent that thematically this final part in Jarmusch’s trilogy is something of a departure from its predecessors. Whereas the monochromatic tones and predominantly static compositions of Jarmusch’s early work seem to convey a sense of uniformity and stasis, Mystery Train’s saturated colour photography and extensive use of tracking shots demonstrates a new animation.

Jarmusch said that he ‘designed Mystery Train to be episodic but simultaneous.’ He wanted to experiment with time and ‘things happening simultaneously and in the same place but without inter-cutting them. So the pieces within the film remained as sequences or episodes.’ The film is divided into three sequences: each sequence stands alone as an individual story, but is connected to the others by smaller events – a hotel, a song on the radio, a picture on the hotel bedroom wall, a gunshot – which pull the three sequences together as a coherent whole. Each sequence effectively offers a different perspective on the same period of time, heightening a sense of the way the various narratives interconnect.

Mystery Train is capable of being interpreted on many levels – an argument perhaps borne out in Jarmusch’s description of the film as ‘a modern minimalist’s version of the Canterbury Tales.’ Mystery Train is a similarly intricate text. Clearly the film is self-reflexive, playing with genres and notable for its multi-referencing of popular culture. It is also apparent that Jarmusch’s characters insert a sense of humanity into a formal structure. Indeed, it seems evident that, although the protagonists in Mystery Train are going through similar turmoil as those in Jarmusch’s two previous films – they generally seem unable to find direction in life and clearly find it difficult coming to terms with their identities – this time they seem more articulate. They succeed in relating their worries and doubts to their counterparts and concurrently manage to recognise each other’s basic humanity. In Mystery Train we see the different meanings Memphis has accrued according to personal perspective. More so than previously, Jarmusch places greater emphasis on his character’s relations with others, so that ‘Mystery Train’ becomes both about the encounter between people and the objectification of a culture.

So, for all that these characters experience during their stay in Memphis and the Arcade Hotel, they finally discover that they want to leave. Their hopes and expectations are ruined or altered in some way, and the magic and appeal of Elvis and Rock & Roll Memphis wears thin and then wears out completely. Jun’s reaction to the gunshot sums up the main idea in Mystery Train: that ‘This is America.’ If Elvis represents the American Dream and Memphis the birth-place of trail-blazing American music, then – true to Jarmusch’s laconic sensitivity – both exist today in shadow form.

In his filmmaking, Jarmusch strives for a distinct dramatic-comic vision, one that combines a formal aesthetic with the effable spirit of his characters. Of his films, he says, ‘They don’t fall into a real genre: slapstick comedy, visual comedy, situation comedy. Often what’s funny or moving to me in films is what happens between moments of dialogue, how people react to each other.’

In ‘Mystery Train’ Jarmusch’s distinctive and inimitable filmmaking style is inaugurated – the emphasis on rhythm, structure and minimalism; the ‘poetic’ arrangement of characters and events; the interest in foreign cultures and outsider figures; the critical relation to American culture and ideologies; and the notion of reality and truth as unstable entities which change according to the perspective from which they are viewed.

‘I think of my films as being somehow more related to poetry as a form than to prose…This sounds a little pretentious. I don’t mean it that way…I like the spaces that happen between things, even between dialogue. Sometimes that’s a lot more meaningful than the dialogue itself. There’s even a word in Japanese, that comes from the Chinese ideogram "ma", that we can’t translate into English…it basically means the space between things which defines those things by not being a part of them.’

Mystery Train (1989) is divided into three different, yet parallel and simultaneous stories, all of which take place over the course of 24 hours in Memphis. Each of the three sequences focuses on a different group of people and their relationship to this "Rock & Roll Haven."

In the first sequence two Japanese tourists, Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) and Mitzuko (Yoke Kudoh), get down from their train like self-confident explorers. They carry a red suitcase on a bamboo pole between them, and the girl, Mitzuko, totes a child’s leopard rucksack containing that modern-day first-aid kit: a Walkman and two headsets. They have come from modern Yokohama to Memphis, Tennessee, to see for themselves the shrines of Graceland and Sun Studios. They are quite fearless, being young; and like a latter-day apprentice gunslinger, Jun is ready to take on all-comers with his quick-draw cigarette lighter. An old black guy in the station asks them for a light. Neither realises its Rufus Thomas, the real King of Memphis. They wander around downtown and check into a run-down hotel. They argue. They make love. They listen to Elvis’s "Blue Moon" on the radio. In the morning they hear a gunshot.

The second sequence presents an Italian woman, Luisa – a widow, beautifully played by Nicoletta Braschi – who wanders around Memphis in a daze. 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. A stranger in a diner (Tom Noonan) sits down at her table. He tells her he picked Elvis up hitchhiking and gives her the King’s comb.

In the third sequence, the same afternoon that the Japanese kids arrive, and the Italian girl is wandering around, we follow three Memphis residents. Johnny (Joe Strummer) is in a bar getting drunk. His girl has left him and he’s lost his job at the cotton warehouse. He pulls out a gun and points it at himself. His friend Will (Rick Aviles) and his brother-in-law Charlie (Steve Buscemi) come and get him. They drive to a liquor store. Johnny steals two bottles of bourbon and shoots the owner. They drive around Memphis. "Blue Moon" comes on the radio. They hole up in the hotel. In the morning Charlie awakes as Johnny points the gun to his own head. They struggle. The gun goes off.

The sequences are connected by the Arcade Hotel, in which all of the characters spend the night. Through their different experiences in Memphis, we are presented with the kind of culture-clashes and blurring of American cultures that are so prevalent in Jim Jarmusch’s films. Jarmusch charts a series of parallel lives that never link. There is comedy in the missed connections, but also a distinct strain of pathos in a subtext reflecting upon the transience of life.

Once again in Mystery Train, Jarmusch articulates an enduring concern with the heterogeneous nature of American culture. ‘America is a kind of throwaway culture that’s made of this mixture of different cultures." Jarmusch has theorised. ‘To make a film about America, it seems to me logical to have at least one perspective that’s transplanted here from some other culture, because ours is a collection of transplanted influences.’

The voice of Elvis Presley jump-starts the film: ‘Train I ride/Sixteen coaches long.’ The phrase is repeated, the seductive clickety-clack rhythm conjuring up heartbreak, romantic longing and a rueful sense of time passing – the same kind of emotional atmosphere Jarmusch captures 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 Graceland and Sun Studios, where he took his first step into legend.

However, the modern-day Memphis that Jarmusch reveals is a ghost-town of empty streets, rundown buildings and vagrant low-lifes. The Arcade Hotel appears strangely deserted. The Arcade’s night clerk, played by a remarkably subdued Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, trades Elvis trivia with his bell-boy companion (Cinqu T Lee). ‘At the time of his death, if he were on Jupiter, Elvis would have weighed 648 pounds.’

Jarmusch’s particular sensibility proceeds via poetic incident as opposed to prose coherence, his films engage impressions rather than simply relate pure narrative. On the primary level "Mystery Train" concerns several key details; the passing of a train, Elvis singing "Blue Moon" on early morning radio, and a gunshot which operate to locate each sequence in a parallel temporal space. But since Jarmusch’s framework is abstract – looking at the same action from different perspectives – the details don’t necessarily reveal a wider story or dramatic narrative flow, but further emphasise the impressionistic effect. In the first sequence there is a wide shot of Jun and Mitzuko wandering through deserted Memphis streets which is later echoed in the second sequence as Luisa walks through the same streets. Each sequence is filled with distinctive details that define the quality and nature of place – the fast-talking tour guide at Sun Studios, the vacant Memphis streets, the run-down Arcade Hotel, the black club where Johnny hangs out, the sombre score structuring the basis throughout. In addition the narrative is dominated by character rather than plot, and personality is crucial – hence the talismanic cameos by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Joe Strummer.

Although Mystery Train has much in common with Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and Down By Law (1986) in terms of its nomadic protagonists, it seems apparent that thematically this final part in Jarmusch’s trilogy is something of a departure from its predecessors. Whereas the monochromatic tones and predominantly static compositions of Jarmusch’s early work seem to convey a sense of uniformity and stasis, Mystery Train’s saturated colour photography and extensive use of tracking shots demonstrates a new animation.

Jarmusch said that he ‘designed Mystery Train to be episodic but simultaneous.’ He wanted to experiment with time and ‘things happening simultaneously and in the same place but without inter-cutting them. So the pieces within the film remained as sequences or episodes.’ The film is divided into three sequences: each sequence stands alone as an individual story, but is connected to the others by smaller events – a hotel, a song on the radio, a picture on the hotel bedroom wall, a gunshot – which pull the three sequences together as a coherent whole. Each sequence effectively offers a different perspective on the same period of time, heightening a sense of the way the various narratives interconnect.

Mystery Train is capable of being interpreted on many levels – an argument perhaps borne out in Jarmusch’s description of the film as ‘a modern minimalist’s version of the Canterbury Tales.’ Mystery Train is a similarly intricate text. Clearly the film is self-reflexive, playing with genres and notable for its multi-referencing of popular culture. It is also apparent that Jarmusch’s characters insert a sense of humanity into a formal structure. Indeed, it seems evident that, although the protagonists in Mystery Train are going through similar turmoil as those in Jarmusch’s two previous films – they generally seem unable to find direction in life and clearly find it difficult coming to terms with their identities – this time they seem more articulate. They succeed in relating their worries and doubts to their counterparts and concurrently manage to recognise each other’s basic humanity. In Mystery Train we see the different meanings Memphis has accrued according to personal perspective. More so than previously, Jarmusch places greater emphasis on his character’s relations with others, so that ‘Mystery Train’ becomes both about the encounter between people and the objectification of a culture.

So, for all that these characters experience during their stay in Memphis and the Arcade Hotel, they finally discover that they want to leave. Their hopes and expectations are ruined or altered in some way, and the magic and appeal of Elvis and Rock & Roll Memphis wears thin and then wears out completely. Jun’s reaction to the gunshot sums up the main idea in Mystery Train: that ‘This is America.’ If Elvis represents the American Dream and Memphis the birth-place of trail-blazing American music, then – true to Jarmusch’s laconic sensitivity – both exist today in shadow form.

In his filmmaking, Jarmusch strives for a distinct dramatic-comic vision, one that combines a formal aesthetic with the effable spirit of his characters. Of his films, he says, ‘They don’t fall into a real genre: slapstick comedy, visual comedy, situation comedy. Often what’s funny or moving to me in films is what happens between moments of dialogue, how people react to each other.’

In ‘Mystery Train’ Jarmusch’s distinctive and inimitable filmmaking style is inaugurated – the emphasis on rhythm, structure and minimalism; the ‘poetic’ arrangement of characters and events; the interest in foreign cultures and outsider figures; the critical relation to American culture and ideologies; and the notion of reality and truth as unstable entities which change according to the perspective from which they are viewed.

‘I think of my films as being somehow more related to poetry as a form than to prose…This sounds a little pretentious. I don’t mean it that way…I like the spaces that happen between things, even between dialogue. Sometimes that’s a lot more meaningful than the dialogue itself. There’s even a word in Japanese, that comes from the Chinese ideogram "ma", that we can’t translate into English…it basically means the space between things which defines those things by not being a part of them.’