Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

(Jim Jarmusch, USA, 1999)


When asked for the zillionth time about his attitude towards screen violence, Quentin Tarantino explained to an interviewer that what he wanted to depict was not violence per se but cold, hard brutality.

It was an odd and revealing apologia: Tarantino’s appeal to a single facet of character psychology didn’t quite manage to elevate his fairly adolescent glee in depicting the spectacle of murder, aggression and death.

Like Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch arrives at stories of violence through a pop culture archive of mythological figures: mobsters, hitmen, obsessed loners, revenge seekers. Like Tarantino, his primary reference is not to current world events but movie and television genres: the gangster film, the Western, even cartoons.

And like Tarantino, Jarmusch is indelibly attracted to those chilling figures of cool, the steely, killing machines derived from European and Asian arthouse classics: Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967), Chow Yun-Fat in John Woo‘s The Killer (1990), or the anti-heroes who dwell in the yakuza world of Seijun Suzuki’s films of the ’50s and ’60s.

But the similarities between these two figureheads of contemporary American cinema end there.

Jarmusch is an original and inspiring artist for many reasons. He is unafraid, for instance, to develop a storyline and create a world out of an almost surreal string of associations. In Jarmusch’s wonderful Ghost Dog, Forest Whitaker plays the title character – an ascetic contract killer who lives on a rooftop among pigeons in contemporary, rundown America, incongruously modelling his behaviour on the ‘way of the samurai’.

The sparse, decaying, urban landscape around Ghost Dog looks, at first smudge, more familiar and realistic, with its street rappers, petty thieves and ordinary citizens trying to survive. But everything has a heightened aura of strangeness: an old man who springs expert martial arts moves on a young thug; low-life gangsters who quote hip hop songs and muse on the “poetry of war”; an ice cream vendor, Raymond (Isaach De Bankole), who only ever speaks in excited French, but somehow manages to blend in effortlessly with the local community.

It is in the representation of violence that the stark differences between Jarmusch and Tarantino become most evident and affecting. Ghost Dog paints a fanciful kind of urban myth, and its hero has almost supernatural powers of speed and divination, but it steadfastly refuses to turn murder into a gory, funny, cool spectacle.

In Dead Man (1995), his masterpiece, Jarmusch portrayed killing as a clumsy, ugly, tragic event. In Ghost Dog, death is presented in a more contemplative, even spiritual light. The calm spectacle of death allows the film to meditate on questions of soul, a common essence linking all living beings – including the soul of nature and animals, since this is a tale in which birds, bears and dogs matter just as profoundly as people.

A very slender and attenuated crime-thriller plot serves as Jarmusch’s pretext. It is, in some details, incomprehensible – particularly when the hoods who hire Ghost Dog as a killer decide that he, in turn, must be killed. This is the sort of film in which we should not expect to ultimately understand the motivations of Ghost Dog’s contact and ‘master’, Louie (John Tormey), or the actions of the mob boss’ daughter, Louise (Tricia Vessey).

What counts far more significantly for Jarmusch is the books that his characters read. Ghost Dog’s principles for living as a samurai are derived not from training or apprenticeship but a Japanese book of aphorisms, the contents of which are regularly written on the screen. This text (by Yamamoto Tsunetomo) provides Jarmusch not only with a statement of the deep values of his hero, but a lightly comic means of generating story incidents and details ranging from rainfall to Ghost Dog’s application of a little make-up.

The film is dotted with many other books, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and a French book for children on bears to another famous Japanese text, Rashomon. These texts really only have meaning insofar as they are circulated among the characters: Ghost Dog, Raymond, Louie, Louise and a smart little girl, Pearline (Camille Winbush), whose red school bag echoes the suitcase always carried by Ghost Dog.

This ceaseless book exchange – from which the film derives humour, drama and finally a terse, understated pathos – relates to Jarmusch’s abiding interest, since his first films, in a mix-and-match culture. Identities are formed in a strange, nomadic process of sampling all that the wide world has to offer – not superficially, as so much pop culture does, but thoughtfully and soulfully. And historically, too: the notion that the hyper-ephemeral modern world is also an “ancient culture” registers powerfully in this movie.

The faith that Jarmusch puts in simple narrative devices to carry an entire film is displayed, too, in his style. Like Jacques Rivette or Wim Wenders, Jarmusch isolates his image and sound elements, allows them time to breathe and really work their magic upon us. The careful use of fades and superimpositions, the superb aerial shots, the well-chosen television clips, the prominence given to RZA’s largely sampled score: Jarmusch wants us to notice and absorb the lot.

Ghost Dog can at first appear a relaxed, droll, minor film – particularly in comparison with the much darker Dead Man. But no detail is wasted in it, and the cumulative effect is, ultimately, deeply moving.

At its centre is Whitaker, in his finest performance since Eastwood’s Bird (1988): his gait, his gaze, his way of apprehending and comprehending the world around him in a flash is mesmerising and sublimely poetic.

MORE Jarmusch: Broken Flowers, Mystery Train, Night on Earth, The Limits of Control, The Dead Don’t Die

© Adrian Martin May 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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