Staff A-Z of Film: G is for… (Pt. 4)

 GhostDog_quad-1DAVE SAYS G IS FOR: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

“The Way of the Samurai is found in death. Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily… And every day, without fail, one should consider himself as dead. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai.”

So begins this unique crime tragedy from one of America’s master filmmakers. Jim Jarmusch has been staking his claim as the US’s independent cinematic voice par excellence for some 30 years now, and in 1999 he furthered that claim with this strange, hypnotic, spiritual, cynical, lyrical noir gem. Forest Whitaker stars as the eponymous Ghost Dog, a hired assassin who has pledged his life to an aging Italian mobster. He lives on the rooftops of an unnamed city, training the carrier pigeons he communicates with (and only with) and living his life strictly by the Bushido, the ancient Samurai code. Nobody knows his name, or where he lives, or how to contact him. They know him only by the moniker he has chosen, and by the flawless record of assassinations he has left behind.

The film is an eclectic mixture of Eastern wisdom, hip-hop soundscapes and jagged-edged New York wiseguy cynicism. When Ghost Dog leaves a witness to one of his assassinations, the mob gives his master, Louie, an ultimatum: either Ghost Dog dies, or he does. And so Ghost Dog sets out to weave a bloody trail of death throughout the mob in order to protect the threatened Louie. Unfazed by the fact that not even Louie understands his unwavering devotion, Ghost Dog will do anything to uphold the Code of the Samurai, including hilariously shooting his master (twice) in order to throw the mob off the scent.

We never learn Ghost Dog’s true identity, and he becomes as much a myth to us as he is to the befuddled mobsters he sets out to take down. His only friend is Isaach de Bankolé’s Haitian ice-cream salesman, despite the fact that neither speaks the other’s language or has any idea what the other is saying. And the only way we get to know him at all is through the tentative friendship he forms with local school kid, Pearline, a kindred spirit who takes a liking to Ghost Dog and seems to understand his strangeness in some beautiful, unspoken way. This mythic quality is really what sets this film apart from other ‘hood’ or crime flicks.

Rather than bombastic and action-packed, Jarmusch’s film is elegant and understated, both in its treatment of character and its occasional outbursts of violence. It pokes fun at many tropes of the crime genre, not least with its Italian mafia that cannot afford to pay rent on time and who more closely resemble Scooby-Doo baddies than Goodfellas. Whitaker’s magnificent performance is at the heart of all of this – quiet and controlled but concealing a deep underlying emotion and a moving sense of loyalty and justice. He lets others do the talking, preferring to say only what needs to be said and do what needs to be done. In many ways, his profound inner peace is what most inflects the atmosphere of the film, despite the high body count.

Ghost Dog also features one of the great scores in recent film history, by influential hip-hop producer The RZA, who cameos (above left) in one scene as a mysterious fellow samurai. With this score, straddling the same gulf between urban grit and Zen harmony as the film itself, Ghost Dog creates a completely unique atmosphere, quite unlike any gangster film before or since. Those familiar with Jarmusch’s previous masterwork, the psychedelic western Dead Man, will also find this something of a spiritual successor, and the director leaves more than one Easter egg in here for the keen-eyed viewer.

There are not many films that can be called completely unique, but Ghost Dog, while perhaps not for everyone, certainly has no equal. By the end of the film one is left with the sense that one has not so much watched a slice of life as been told the story of a myth or tragic passion play, with a hero who represents a set of ideas and principles that have come into conflict with a time and place in which they do not belong.

One of those films that bears multiple viewings over time in order to truly let the weight of the ideas and the drama truly sink in, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai should be top of the list for anyone with a taste for daring, independent or unique pieces of cinema.

Check out the trailer right here: