Mystery Train ★★★★

Mitzuko: "Was that a gun?"
Jun: "Probably. This is America."

I've got to hand it to writer-director Jim Jarmusch. He never fails to surprise me. This film is told as three separate but intertwined stories: "Far from Yokohama," "A Ghost" and "Lost in Space." Although a train plays a key role in the film, the linking elements are a seedy hotel, a radio DJ playing Elvis Presley's version of "Blue Moon" and a single gunshot heard early one morning.

I'm not sure how others might react to the first story, which involves two Japanese tourists, Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) and Mitzuko (Yûki Kudô), looking to connect with the Memphis vibe. I am fluent in Japanese and can attest to the ultra authentic way in which the two visitors interact. I'm sure that executive producers Kunijiro Hirata and Hideaki Suda played a big role in this feat.

The second act introduces an Italian element, as widowed Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi) meets estranged wife Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco) after a stranger in a diner (Tom Noonan) lays a ghost story on the foreigner as part of a scam. The two women spend the night in the same fleabag hotel, sharing a room next door to the Japanese couple, although they never see one another.

Then, a trio of local residents -- Steve Buscemi, Rick Aviles and Joe Strumm -- take over the third act and pull the story together with a U.K. twist, a bit of drunkenness, some gun fire and a touch of serendipity. Clearly the strongest acting of the film occurs here.

What I loved about this film was its wacky foreign perspective on American culture -- make that "Elvis" culture -- plus its unapologetic documentary style. Jarmusch passes no judgments on these characters. He presents them to us as is, unadorned ships passing in the night. But the format still works as a narrative journey through a crazy night in Memphis. Long live the King -- Elvis. And may Jarmusch keep making off-beat films like this for many years to come.

Part of my 5 Directors x 5 Unseen Films (2) challenge.

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