Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai 1999 ★★★★

The droll, deadpan humor of independent director Jim Jarmusch has in no small part contributed to his virtual lionization as one of the great American auteurs. Although his early films have their following, it was his moody black and white Western, Dead Man that earned him his current popularity. The film was virtually dumped by its distributor, only to then steadily develop a devoted critical and popular following. It was also the first film where Jarmusch fused his fondness for episodic tales with a more coherent narrative. Although still offbeat and experimental, it signaled Jarmusch willing to apply his idiosyncrasies to something approaching mainstream construction. It was the perfect fusion of iconoclasm and genre. Jarmusch’s next film, Ghost Dog, furthered his move towards the mainstream and is his most sustained narrative to date. It is also perhaps his most allusive. However, it did not fare as well with critics and seems now poised to be something of a bridging work, inspired by traditional genres. It remains to be seen whether Jarmusch will continue the individualistic slide into the mainstream that is signaled by Ghost Dog. Significantly perhaps, this strange film failed to win much of an audience beyond the expected supporters able to place the film in an overall body of work.

Forest Whitaker plays the man of the title, a hit-man for the mob and a silent loner who has dedicated himself to living by the ancient Japanese code of the Samurai, as written down in the 18th Century volume known as the Hajakuri. His “master” is a gangster (John Tormey) who works for Mob boss Henry Silva. Silva orders the killing of another mobster and the task is carried out, with Tormey able to contact Whitaker only by carrier pigeon. There is a witness however. Out of a perverted logic, Silva then orders that Whitaker has to be killed for murdering one of their own, even if the hit was so ordered. Although this baffles Tormey, he is bound by his loyalty to his code and tells Silva all that he knows of Whitaker. The search is then on to find this elusive hit-man. Whitaker knows something is amiss and contacts Tormey. Tormey tells him that he is a wanted man and now Whitaker is a torn and conflicted figure. It is against his code to kill his master but he knows that his master’s honor code demands that he turn on his servant. Whitaker seeks to eliminate the threat posed by the gangsters, even if he suspects that it may not stave off a showdown with Tormey that will truly test the loyalty each man has to their respective code. Through it all, Whitaker balances his life by relating only to a man who does not speak the language and to a little girl.

One remarkable thing about Ghost Dog is its sense of generic fusion, its almost effortless balance of samurai lore and gangster movie in order to shape a discussion of what many of the film’s analysts considered antiquated honor. Both the gangsters and the samurai live by old codes which they have trouble adapting to the modern world. Despite Whitaker’s fate, his elusive triumph is that he lives by the code, although the mobsters can also claim to do so. Rather than a clash of honor codes, although it is that to, the film is more about the success and failure of honor in the modern world. Yet for Jarmusch, this honor is somewhat ambiguous: it is what these people hope to live by but in the end only serves to entrap them in ritualized forms of conduct (frequently a Jarmusch theme and perhaps a key to deciphering his sense of the paradoxes of episodic progression) that lead to destruction. The interplay between self-definition and self-entrapment runs throughout this rather desolately amusing movie. From the outset thus, honor is equated with a kind of living death in which life is lived in a kind of trance state out of allegiance to a form of self-definition that seeks to unify tradition and modernity, but ultimately cannot – ending only in a kind of almost pointless self-sacrifice. Despite the comedy in this film, there is inevitably only an inescapable despair as honor is upheld but to arguably futile and self-defeating ends.

The core of the film is Whitaker’s graceful performance as a modern urban loner, finding connection only with a man who cannot speak the same language. His reading of his book on Samurai lore organizes the film into chapters – a standard and episodic means of structuring in Jarmusch’s films. In his view he may be in some kind of Zen harmony with existence, but he lives a reclusive and lonely existence, barely communicating and seemingly content – as long as he can take refuge in his personal honor code. The idea of honor as a refuge from modern urban alienation runs through this bizarre hybrid of samurai and gangster (Italian and African-American) film. It is perhaps the belief in honor which allows Whitaker to achieve some form of transcendence, at least in his own mind – the film also exploring the vast chasm between Whitaker’s lonely existence and the escapist validation he finds in his sense of professional loyalty. The idea of a transcendental murderer is always held in check against the awareness of just how much his honor is a life lived in reaction to a state of seemingly perpetual loneliness. It is this quality that makes Ghost Dog a rather sad film, despite its deadpan comedy. Whilst not as well integrated as the truly astounding Dead Man, Ghost Dog is a contemplative look at people bound in their own personal traps.

2 Comments

  • Very excellent review. It makes me excited for a re-watch. " The idea of a transcendental murderer is always held in check against the awareness of just how much his honor is a life lived in reaction to a state of seemingly perpetual loneliness." Love it.

  • Thanks. Yes, the film is worth a re-watch - proof Jarmusch can handle narrative.

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