Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (2000)
Dir. Jim Jarmusch
Written by: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Forrest Whitaker, John Tormey, Isaach de Bankolé, Henry Silva
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai was my introduction to Jim Jarmusch, a filmmaker who I’d go on to really get into in my early twenties. When I first watched the movie, probably around 16 years old, I picked it up because I knew that all the music had been composed by the RZA and I knew that it combined two of my favorite things: kung fu/Eastern martial arts culture and old school New York City hip hop culture. While I expected to like the movie, simply based on its premise of a modern assassin who lives by the ancient code of the samurai, I didn’t expect it to strike me in such a way. Quentin Tarantino aside, I hadn’t found a filmmaker who seemed this interested in projecting a specific idea of “cool” through his cinema, by way of inscrutable references, impressionistic sequences that seem to exist outside the realm of the narrative, and an insistence on creating mood over narrative clarity. I enjoyed Ghost Dog a great deal, but it was never a movie that I watched very often. It isn’t terribly complex, but I did find it to be challenging when I was a teen, maybe because I wasn’t as steeped in the practices of a post-modern filmmaker like Jarmusch. Going back and watching it today, with a decade and a half of viewership under my belt, and a more than passing familiarity with Jarmusch’s brand of “cool” cinema, I think that I enjoy Ghost Dog even more.
The film’s protagonist, the titular Ghost Dog (Whitaker), is a contract killer sworn to live his life by the strict code of the samurai. Shortly after the film opens, Ghost Dog is fulfilling a contract for Louie (Tormey), a low-level gangster who employs Ghost Dog, and to whom Ghost Dog has sworn fealty due to Louie’s saving his life when he was a teen. While Ghost Dog carries out the hit on Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow), he doesn’t realize that there is a woman in the room with Frank, whom he leaves alive and who gives him a copy of the book Rashomon. It turns out that the young woman is the daughter of Louie’s mob boss, Vargo (Henry Silva), and Vargo puts out the word to his crew to find and kill Ghost Dog in order to distance the mob from the murder. This proves to be more difficult than expected, however, as Ghost Dog only contacts Louie by carrier pigeon and is notoriously secretive about his personal life. While the mobsters have difficulty tracking down a ghost, Ghost Dog begins turning the tables on them and hunting them down to save his own life.
The first time I saw Ghost Dog, I was taken in by it almost immediately. Its overwhelming sense of cool was enveloping, and its style was unlike any gangster movie I had ever seen before. The movie is a pastiche of so many disparate influences that it seemed specifically engineered to my own personal taste preferences at the time. It blends classic gangster movies, Eastern philosophy and religion, hip hop culture, and classic American pulp, and the end result is a mélange of signifiers and cultural references that add up to a great action movie, all held together by the glue that is Jarmusch’s impressionistic, post-modern directorial style. Scenes fade in and out at random, intercut by passages from the Hagakure, an ancient Japanese text that defines the life and rituals of the samurai. These spoken passages serve as both counterpoint and context for the film, and help to define the personal philosophy of Ghost Dog, who is never outwardly expressive or outspoken. The movie is often dependent on its cultural references, using them to imbue otherwise mundane conversations or happenings with a greater import. This could potentially be seen as a weak storytelling device, but within the framework of the hazy world that Jarmusch has created, within the framework of the film as a dream, reliance on these signifiers is key. Just as in dreams, these cultural signifiers act as markers that help to orient the characters and the viewer, and there are enough delightfully strange elements at work in Ghost Dog that one could certainly support a reading of the film that paints it as one big dream, but I don’t necessarily agree with that reading. I don’t think that Ghost Dog is a film that can so simply be defined as representing a dream or objective reality, but, rather, I think it is a film that is primarily interested in exploring a dreamlike philosophy of existence.
From its inception, theorists writing about the cinema seemed likely to compare the experience of watching a movie to that of dreaming. The idea of accepting images, sometimes strange and foreign to our consciousness, broadcast through a stream of light onto a screen in a darkened space brought to mind the somnambulant experience of the dream. Since then, movies have seemed to be a perfect medium to explore otherwise difficult to quantify psychological and dreamlike phenomenon, and Ghost Dog is a perfect example of the film working to codify and represent a dreamlike existence. The film explicitly references the dream in one of the interstitial passages in which Ghost Dog reads from the Hagakure, which says, “It is a good viewpoint to see the world as a dream. When you have something like a nightmare, you will wake up and tell yourself that it was only a dream. It is said that the world that we live in is not a bit different from this.” This passage, along with the presence of Rashomon, a classic tale about the illusory nature of concrete reality, indicate strongly that Ghost Dog is interested in representing not an actual dream, but a state of being in which the subject has some control over a dreamlike existence. Ghost Dog is awake, and I believe that the incidents depicted in the film are meant to be objectively real, but through his adherence to meditation and Eastern philosophy, Ghost Dog has achieved a state of being in which he floats through the corporeal world as if he would a dream world.
The film also supports this reading in more concrete ways, as Ghost Dog is frequently treated by all of the other characters as some sort of Other. He famously cannot understand the language of the man he calls his best friend, Raymond (de Bankole), an ice cream man who only speaks French, but the two have no trouble communicating with one another. The mobsters seem totally vexed by Ghost Dog, unable to track his movements efficiently, and unable to understand his strict adherence to the moral code of the samurai. In the film, Ghost Dog exists separately from other characters, communicating on different wave lengths, and often seeming to pass by strangers unnoticed, as would an apparition. It is also important to note that Ghost Dog is sometimes recognized by strangers who appear to be privy to some knowledge of the lifestyle that Ghost Dog has committed himself to. Perhaps this is because he is truly operating on a different psychological and existential plane. He seems to inhabit the place of the waking dream, existing in the real world and able to have a tangible effect on an earthly plane, but also readily able to slip back into an elevated and obfuscated level of consciousness, submitting to the logic of the dream state.
Stylistically, Jarmusch insists on maintaining a tenuous grip on narrative reality, allowing the story to unfold out of sync, told from multiple points of view, and featuring several elliptically cryptic inserts. This narrative structure is obviously readily identifiable as a dreamlike structure, as are the aforementioned cultural references that Jarmusch packs in relentlessly. Ghost Dog is clearly an homage to several gangster films that came before it, including most obviously Melville’s Le Samourai and Suzuki’s Branded to Kill. These films, as well as Rashomon, heavily influence the movie in the same way that visual media and pop culture have an insidious way of sneaking into dreams. The cultural appropriations also serve to orient the ways in which the characters see themselves, for example all of Louie’s mob friends are paint-by-number gangsters. They lament their ineffectualness as criminals, and respect Ghost Dog for “taking [them] out the right way,” when he goes on his killing spree, but their entire identity is constructed from the gangster archetype established by classical Hollywood. Through a maze of signifiers, Jarmusch has created not only a framework of relevant texts through which to interpret and understand his post-modern gangster film, he’s also revealed the source material through which he, and by extension, his characters have come to understand the world. It’s a very meta- tactic, and the sort of filmic exercise that could certainly turn some viewers off, but it’s one of the things that I love Ghost Dog for the most.
Of course, all of Jarmusch’s high-minded philosophical import would be largely irrelevant if he weren’t able to craft a film that was equally engaging as a crime thriller, and, luckily, Ghost Dog is certainly that. The movie is a satisfyingly grimy low-stakes crime caper. It reminds me of classic crime films like Cassevettes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Like in that film, the characters in Ghost Dog are down on their luck losers, for the most part, and though the stakes are high, individually, none of the action would resonate in the way that it does in epic crime films like The Godfather. It’s a hard-scrabble vision of the criminal underworld, and it’s peopled by memorable characters played by familiar character actors who all turn in impressive, understated performances. Forest Whitaker is the perfect Ghost Dog, relying largely on gesture and his expressive face to convey meaning in a role with very few lines of dialogue. Though he’s had at least a half dozen higher profile roles, I still always picture him as the stoic assassin Ghost Dog. I’m sure that most people would be content to simply enjoy Ghost Dog for its merits as a great, low budget crime thriller, and would totally eschew the sort of philosophical exploration that the film invites me towards, but, to me, Ghost Dog is the rare movie that is as cinematically satisfying as it is intellectually satisfying, and the ending of the movie begs for a sequel, although I doubt one will ever come. Still, the movie exists wonderfully as it is as an homage to supposed “low culture” art forms, such as kung fu, hip hop, and the gangster film, that combines all of these elements to transcend them in creating a movie that asks questions about the very nature of the human experience.