Mystery Train ★★★★½

Featuring a segmented narrative that jumps back and forth in time and a host of characters that are quite different in origin and nature, Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train may seem like a casual film. Set in Memphis, the film focuses on three disparate groups of people who find their paths intersecting in a dilapidated hotel. Clad in a blood-red suit, Screamin' Jay Hawkins plays the late-shift manager who maintains this way station for lost souls. The principal characters are all foreign to the U.S.--a pair of Japanese tourists, an Italian woman taking her dead husband back home, and a Brit (Joe Strummer) who works in the city--and Jarmusch uses them to take an outsider's look at the South. The movie alternates between low-key comedy and cultural perspective, creating a triptych narrative that gets more interesting as it develops.

The film works for a number of reasons: the extremely talented and eclectic cast, the precise visual aesthetic exemplified by cinematographer Robby Müller, and Jarmusch's clever script. By interweaving these intersecting narratives, he creates a canvas of American culture. Memphis serves as a microcosm for the whole nation, a city whose main attractions are the homes of dead rock stars. The most inescapable image of the film is the face of Elvis Presley; a painting of him can be found in every room, and his rendition of "Blue Moon" gets repeated on the radio towards the end of each story. The comedy present in the dialogue and interactions throughout the film mask a wholly pessimistic outlook on the U.S.A. and its fetishistic obsession with idols.

This is a good goal for a film to work towards, but Jarmusch's main success is integrating it slowly and subtly into the narrative. The first section of the film, featuring a Japanese couple who are in Memphis to visit a recording studio and Elvis' childhood home, functions as comedy of cultural difference. Jarmusch mines laughs from the language barrier without verging into silliness, but it gets more serious as the two begin to realize how different the South is from what they expected. Jarmusch uses this a springboard to enjoy some pertinent social commentary on contemporary race relations and economic problems. It's a tactic that adds remarkable depth to what would otherwise be an enjoyable and unique comedy.

After a few Jarmusch movies under my belt, I've really gotten to like his languid pacing, sense of humor, and affection for mixing diverse cultural elements. This is an ambitious film, small in scope but packed with a lot of detail to appreciate. The pleasures of Mystery Train are extremely-calibrated, and they show the efforts of man who is attracted to the weird. The offbeat writing and approach to plotting are combined to make a distinct, fun, and incisive film.