Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai

Ghost Dog

The Way of the Whitaker

dir: Jim Jarmusch


Jarmusch has always been a very idiosyncratic, in some ways quite limited director, but he made his magnum opus here. His films were interesting before and after it, especially Down By Law, Dead Man and Mystery Train, but Ghost Dog represents the pinnacle of his art form, for my money. I don’t have a lot of money at the moment, so I realise that’s not saying much.

On the surface it seems like a simple film: strange guy who calls himself Ghost Dog and pretends to be a samurai kills a bunch of people. And I guess it is. Simple, that is. But there is this persistent vision that permeates the flick, creating the urban world as seen through the lens of an ancient warrior’s code and Ghost Dog’s eyes which elevates the flick above its seemingly generic plot.

Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is a large, ominous looking brother who meticulously and methodically plans and carries out assassinations. Though he is silent in all he does, we hear his voice in voiceover narrations, imparting the ancient wisdom of the samurai to us ignorant peasants in the audience.

There is a spareness to Jarmusch films present here as well, but the major difference here compared to his other works involves the fact that it is in colour and that it is edited in a somewhat more conventional fashion than his earlier films were. In times past the camera used to get set up in front of two or more people, they’d chat for a while, then the scene would fade to black. Miraculously, Jarmusch one day discovered other ways to shoot and edit films. Lucky for us he started incorporating these new and exciting techniques in his work, or at least his cinematographers and editors did, and we are the better for it.

The urban environment as represented here is a cold, distanced place, which suits the main character. In our current reality a freak like Ghost Dog would look ridiculous, but the city in which Jarmusch places him fits like a bloody glove. It’s unclear whether the environment shapes itself to him or vice versa. What remains is the impression that an idiot savant like the Dog is pure, and with that purity comes the ability to do what seems impossible to the rest of us. Both Ghost Dog and Jarmusch pick up on that essential element of the old bushido / samurai philosophical stuff, and instead of it coming across as pretentious and laboured it gives the flick a deeper significance. Even though it’s still about a guy killing a bunch of other guys.

There are more than enough parallels with Pierre Melville’s classic flick Le Samourai for me to call the film almost a homage to that masterpiece, but it is substantially different enough for the association to be a positive one. It doesn’t look bad in comparison, on the contrary, it’s a good enough film in its own right.

Ghost Dog communicates with his “lord” through the use of carrier pigeons. Being a “samurai”, he lives to serve his “master”, who in this case happens to be a mid-level mafia henchman, Louie (John Tormey). Having his life saved by the guy as a teenager, the damaged Dog devotes his life to serving his lord through the tenets of the samurai code. They have a strange but appreciable father – son relationship rather than an upstairs / downstairs master – servant dynamic. Louie, whilst an old school mafia guy, is hardly the hard boozing, hard fighting Goodfellas - Sopranos kind of gangster; he’s just a chubby old middle aged guy wondering how much longer he can survive in the game. He cares about Ghost Dog, but is still practical about their relationship, and his own survival.

When Louie’s superiors tell him to organise some killings, Louie tells Ghost Dog, who unfailingly carries out his duties with cool and focussed precision. When something goes wrong on one of the hits, the mob boys start on the path of their own destruction by taking on someone they can’t understand.

Ghost Dog doesn’t fit into their world, seeing everything in terms of the perfect clarity of the so-called Way, and they don’t understand their vulnerability until it is way too late. By the same token Ghost Dog fails to understand that the world doesn’t appreciate his adherence to the code. In the end it doesn’t matter because his life and death are to be based on the pure embracement of his philosophy, within which there is no scope for regret.

Sure, it’s the blend of Eastern philosophy, containing elements of Buddhism, Taoism and the Jedi religion that American cinema has been peddling for years in its dire, New Age-y way, but it’s for a higher purpose here. It’s for the joy of watching a guy kill dozens and dozens of people in highly efficient and sometimes ironically amusing ways.

I remember years ago being somewhat disturbed by the fascistic elements of the story (ie. the only way most stories can ever be resolved, that any conflict can be finalised is by killing everyone), but they don’t bug me as much any more. If taken as a transplantation of a Chinese / Japanese archetypal character placed in an incongruously Western urban context, it makes sense. In most Asian films, everyone gets killed or dies just for the hell of it. I think they kill some of the people working as carpenters and on the catering for each movie as well just to make sure they got the point across.

Death is, after all, central to the Way of the Samurai. Ghost Dog tells us that for the samurai to be truly worthy he must meditate on death, on the imminent likelihood of his own death, on a constant basis. Only when the samurai abandons the remnants of their attachment to life can they become truly effective.

It seems almost strange to talk about these elements in a modern, American film. It’s as if they should be applicable to some period piece Akira Kurosawa flick, or some Star Trek related Klingon monstrosity. Jarmusch, whether sly or guileless, makes the story as straight and as simple as you want it to be, with a great deal more subtlety than a few other contemporary directors I can think of. No one should confuse this with something like Kill Bill, that’s for goddamn sure.

Though he is a thoroughly strange chap, Ghost Dog does form some relationships with various people. His best friend is an ice cream vendor (Isaach de Bankole, another Jarmusch stalwart) with whom he cannot communicate with language despite the fact that they can seemingly communicate by chance all the same. He also befriends a small, local girl called Pearline (Camille Winbush) to whom he imparts some Japanese wisdom, and whom he also starts upon the path to wisdom by lending her a copy of Rashomon.

Many of the characters (except for Ghost Dog, naturally) seem to go through the film in a disaffected haze. They seem, for most of the film’s duration, to be fairly static, passive characters. Of course that doesn’t hold true in the actiony bits, but the rest of the time people seem pretty dazed. There’s a connection to television, and how certain characters watch it compulsively that seems to be an ongoing element throughout the movie. The deeply ugly mafia boss Vargo (Henry Silva) seems more interested in watching cartoons than commanding a mafia empire, and his daughter retreats into a world of nothing but Itchy and Scratchy for opposite reasons. Even with death all around, the cartoons seems more important.

The key point is that none of them live the life that Ghost Dog does, lacking the spirituality and purpose of his beliefs. Yet to them he is the madman.

And he probably is. The line between the true believer and the delusional psychotic is pretty much invisible to most of us. The people around him don’t really seem that sane either. At one stage Mr Dog points out an incredible sight to his French speaking friend. High above the city he shows him a man building a boat on the top of a building. This modern Noah is doing something that makes perfect sense to him, but seems mad to anyone else, even Dog and his friend.

The film is well shot by long-time collaborator Robby Muller, on Whitaker’s part it is perfectly acted, and there are enough ironies and witty little idiosyncrasies throughout the script and on screen to elevate the story above its modest origins. The score by RZA is appropriate to the material and complements rather than detracts from the story. It suits the setting, the environment and the main character.

It’s a damn fine film, though it requires a great deal of patience due to its mostly languid pace. It has plenty of violence in it, but I wouldn’t really call it an action film. It’s got too much going on to just be that.

Jarmusch’s weird sense of humour permeates everything, above and beyond any stylistic or thematic choices, and as someone that likes his stuff I have to say that this is probably my favourite of his flicks. As a fan I appreciated the fact that he was making a different type of flick from the ones he’d been making up until then, and it means I like the fact that he branched out. You wouldn’t want to be making the same film over and over again, unless you’re Steven Spielberg or Oliver Stone, would you?

9 shots through a copper pipe out of 10

“It's poetry. The poetry of war” – Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai