Ghost Dog, Jim Jarmusch’s beguiling 1999 mash-up of genres and styles might just be the best movie in an exceptionally eclectic and historically relevant career. Jarmusch has made many films that walk the line between filmic tribute and cutting-edge cultural critique, and Ghost Dog does so with style and energy. In one of his greatest roles, Forest Whitaker is Ghost Dog, an urban assassin, who, in a lifelong debt to an old-school Mafioso, carries out gangland hits using the philosophy and techniques of the Japanese samurai as portrayed in the classic Japanese text Hagakure. By night he murders gangsters, but by day he is an eccentric, yet integral part of his community. It is precisely this humanizing conflict that makes this film rise high above its inherent stylistic limitations and enter the class of groundbreaking modern film.
Ghost Dog succeeds on many levels, but they are all thanks to Jim Jarmusch and Forest Whitaker. Whitaker’s Ghost Dog is a complex mountain of a character, whose lethal understanding of murder is matched by his authentically tender relationships with others in his neighborhood (in an unnamed, gritty, East-Coast city). He carries on a telepathically satisfying friendship with the local ice cream salesman in spite of the fact that they don’t speak the same language, bonds with a young girl through books, earns the respect of the local gang-bangers and, most interestingly, he cares for a flock of pigeons, using them for communication while showing them a humanity he denies his victims. In a performance of very few words Whitaker conveys a colorful palette of emotions through his expressive eyes, world-weary bearing and delicately menacing physical enormity. The true samurai, he glides through the city invisible to his enemies, but surprisingly approachable to the folks in the ‘hood.
For his part writer/director Jim Jarmusch has created a modern classic. While occasionally veering into the Tarantino school of style-over-substance-hyper-violence, he keeps an eye to the moral center and fills the motivations of the central character with such convincing ambiguity that the reprehensible moral choices he makes seem somehow understandable. Through his terse dialogue and the creation of an atmospheric world for Ghost Dog to inhabit, the characters and events feel like real life (or maybe dream life). That world is the other uncredited star of this film. Ghost Dog pulses with the sights and sounds of the city. There are dark urban realities juxtaposed with beautiful, ponderous shots of the moon or birds in flight. And then there is the music. Jarmusch masterfully weaves together deep soul and reggae cuts with the brilliant beats and insistent rhymes of the original music created by The RZA (who makes an effective cameo himself toward the end of the movie). Like many of Jarmusch’s best movies, the soundtrack almost becomes a character in itself.
The central conflict of the film comes from the fact that in the execution of one of Whitaker’s scheduled hits something goes wrong, and suddenly the hunter becomes the hunted. The mob now has a hit out on Ghost Dog and thus, as they say on the street, “it’s on!” Lots of blood gets spilled in a very short period of time in the last quarter of this movie, and yet an equal or even greater care is given over to showing Ghost Dog as a man of honor and thought. He lays the seeds in his neighborhood for those he cares about to sprout new growth.
Like all movies which busy themselves with the feelings of the killers, rather than those of the victims (which is virtually ALL modern movies), I question the believability of some of the characters, or why I should give a rat’s ass about them, but the overall effect of Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai is like that of an epic poem. Forest Whitaker is a modern Odysseus trying to make it home through a world filled with evil to a place of moral serenity. He gets there, but if he’s better off for it is for you to decide.
- Paul Epstein