Mystery Train: Jarmusch’s Three Stories, Set in Hotel

After the bravura debut “Stranger Than Paradise” and the accomplished “Down By Law,” Jim Jarmusch’s work experienced an artistic decline.

His third feature, “Mystery Train,” tells three stories that take place at the same time, but they are told sequentially–end to end–rather than through intercutting, which is the Hollywood norm.

There was no significant connection between the stories, except at the tonal level of whimsy. Once again, the lost characters are floating among the driftwood and candy wrappers.

Jarmusch imbues an anecdotal narrative, entirely set in a hotel, with style. Bobby Muller’s daylight cinematography is clear-textured, with a steady and gently moving frame. The night scenes are luminous–everything in Memphis glows, even the streets. Elvis Presley, the myth and the person, hangs over the comedy, providing the bridge between the three vignettes.

As the odd events and eccentric details begin accumulate, Jarmusch’s distinguished vision becomes more and more recognizable.  But the material is fragile: Each story is an amalgam of attitudes, images, and songs, meant to evoke something larger, but the dialogue is mostly trivial.

In “Mystery Train,” Jarmusch comes close to crawling in place. Film critics, who earlier had championed his work, were disappointed with the end result. New York magazine David Denby pointed out that while drawling pace is integral to Jarmusch’s style, a director who depends on people talking past one another can not develop much momentum.

And charging that Jarmusch is “interested in the look of the actual world, but not in the world itself,” the New Yorker Pauline Kael claimed that there are limits to how much lethargy audiences will take, urging the director to expand his scope.