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Ghost Dog:
The Way of the Samurai

Review by Jerry White
Posted 17 March 2000

Written and Directed by Jim Jarmusch 

Starring Forest Whitaker, 
John Tormey, Cliff Gorman, 
Henry Silva, Isaach De Bankolé, 
Tricia Vessey, Victor Argo, 
Gene Ruffini, Richard Portnow, 
and Camille Winbush

One of the most mysterious elements of a Jim Jarmusch film is that you're never entirely sure when he's being serious and when he's just making fun. There are lesser film makers who adopt a similarly ambiguous ironic strategy, and often end up making films that are either very simple (Guy Madden) or very smarmy (Todd Solondz), but for some reason, Jarmusch has always been able to pull it off. His latest film, Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai, adopts a pose that at first seems ironic to the max (a hit man tries to live his life according to the Samurai code), but slowly the narrative begins to weigh on you. You become involved with this very odd protagonist (played by Forrest Whittaker) and you even begin to find the absurdly drawn gangster characters a little bit compelling. And yet, there are other elements of the film that are clearly there to draw you out of the narrative, to let you laugh at everything as you're reminded that it's all just a movie. Why, in these irony-soaked times, doesn't this strategy, this hedging of bets, seem forced? The answer lies in couple of places.

The film opens on a Jersey-City roof toop, which, we discover, is the training ground of one Ghost Dog, a hit man who's obsessed with the eighteenth-century book, Hagakure: The Way of the Samurai (quotations from which divide sections of the film). He gets hired to knock off the lover of a Jersey gang boss's daughter, but when his victim turns out to be a made man, the whole plot comes Tarantinoly unraveled. As this is unfolding, Ghost Dog befriends a young, precocious girl, who never seems to entirely understand what's going on. He's also "best friends" with an ice-cream vendor played by Issah de Bankole, who, given his character's total lack of English, we can be certain doesn't know what's going on. It's not exactly a circle of trusted advisers, but their clarifying, focusing effect is yet another element of this film that we should find parodic and comical but which ends up being rather touching, and therefore a bit disorienting.

This circle of friends, though, provide a center to the film: they embody a push and pull between zen-like enlightenment and the ever-present, needling sense that you don't quite have even the most basic facts needed to handle the situations in front of you. That this is made manifest by a guy whose signposts are both an incredibly portentous book of Japanese wisdom and a companion who doesn't have the foggiest ideas what everyone around him is saying may seem overly absurd, but it comes off as oddly touching.

A lot of this is due to Forrest Whittaker's deeply weird performance. Sure, he's supposed to be a man possessed of a dignity now lost to his cruel art and all that, but the way he inhabits the Ghost Dog character goes well beyond that hoary cliché. Instead, Whittaker conveys a sense of utter exhaustion and desolation; he stops just short of seeming pathetic. That Jarmusch also invests his character with no small amount of gangster prowess makes him seem like a burned out Martin Scorsese character who's too proud to accept his also-ran status. His name, of course, leads us in this direction. Whittaker's character is pretty far from the running-dog capitalism that defines the gangster ethic; he's a mere ghost of that idea, walking around shell shocked. These snippets from the Samurai book seem vaguely nihilist and badass in a way that would certainly appeal to those used to self-conscious post-pulp gangster films, but in Ghost Dog there's not much indulgence of the insincere, essentially adolescent sensibility that generally seems to infest contemporary manifestations of that genre. Instead, we get a very weird, not-quite-disillusioned anti-hero, played by an actor whose gifts have been too little used by Hollywood filmmakers. So here's a good link for this film: there's a lot more of The Crying Game (in which Whittaker brilliantly played a doomed British Army Officer) in this Ghost Dog than there is Pulp Fiction.

Jarmusch compliments this sense of eerie desolation with gangster characters who come close indeed to the level of self-parody without moving fully into the comfortable realm of comedy. The guy who hires Ghost Dog, and who ends up betraying him, is obviously confused and slightly irritated by all the Samurai shenanigans (in his suit-wearing moral universe, this is all hopelessly foreign and pretentious), but is confronted by a genuine moral crisis by the end of the film, a crisis in which the various Samurai-like implications are clearly not lost on him. I'm not saying that the end of the film brings a full-blown melodrama that we're supposed to take at face value; still, it becomes really tough indeed to separate the comic from the oddly tragic. 

Indeed, it's very difficult to get a foothold in this film, a place where we can stand and solidly separate what parts of the film we're not supposed to take seriously and therefore should stay distanced from and what we're supposed to let ourselves get involved in. In this way, Jarmusch reminds me a great deal of his contemporary Steven Soderbergh, whose recent genre films Out Of Sight and The Limey have been downright baffling in terms of what we're supposed to make of their wonderfully uneven characters and situations.  These two guys came to prominence at more or less the same time (how well I remember the headline of Film Comment's Cannes issue my freshman year of college, announcing the arrival of the "American New Wave" of Soderbergh, Jarmusch and Spike Lee), buy their early films were utterly distinct. That they have now begin to converge, and converge in this very strange territory that almost dares the viewer to indulge in the conventions of the genre film at the same that it refuses to provide any easy answers (or, indeed, any answers at all) to the question of how we're supposed to relate to these characters or situations, seems to me to speak well of that influential late-80s burst of precocious American filmmaking. These guys have matured nicely; they have lots to teach the younger generation of filmmakers to whom their early indie successes have given often undeserved opportunities.

Click here to read Cynthia Fuch's interview with Forest Whitaker or review.

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