Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai April 5, 2021
1 Hr., 56 Mins.
he lifestyles of the hitman and the samurai seem on the face of it incompatible. But Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker), a New Jersey-based mafia assassin, works diligently to marry their tenets for himself. The protagonist of Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
(1999) — an inspired scion of Jean-Pierre Melville’s definitive hitman drama Le Samouraï (1967) — lives in near-complete isolation. He takes
shelter in a dingy, perfectly secluded rooftop apartment and doesn't often leave it. Passenger pigeons — the only medium through which Ghost Dog will communicate — swarm its deck. Its interiors are littered with various Japanese iconographies, from newspaper-clipping wallpaper to a resin-waterfall tabletop feature. When we first see Ghost Dog in the movie, he’s attentively scanning — as he does every day — pages from Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s essential samurai spiritual guide Hagakure. (Among its wisdoms: one should experience life as if it were a dream; one should meditate daily on the irrevocability of death.) Tsunetomo’s guidance gives his life, so death-defined, a deeper meaning.
Ghost Dog methodically avoids tight-knit relationships. His closest friends are an excitable Haitian immigrant who runs a nearby ice-cream truck and doesn’t know a word of English (Isaach de Bankolé) and a wise-beyond-her-years little girl named Pearline who sometimes stops by the truck and is receptive to Ghost Dog’s reading recommendations (Camille Winbush). Despite his methodical privacy, Ghost Dog seems a beloved figure in his neighborhood. We see him
repeatedly greeted by passersby with the reverence you’d normally see reserved for respected elders.
The lure of Ghost Dog is its hypnotic languorousness; you’re more interested in watching Ghost Dog move about life than you are where the narrative takes you. I liked simply being inside its world. Its sense of solitude imbues the look and feel of everything — like how an overcast sky gives everything a dimness. The movie has a pleasurable dreaminess to it, and when you’re in its world you feel like you’re sleepwalking. (In keeping with Hagakure’s recommendation that one should treat everyday life as if it were a dream.)
Up from Ghost Dog’s appealing lassitude springs a plot. For one early mission, Ghost Dog's retainer, Louie (John Tormey), tasks him with killing gangster Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow). Frank is having an affair with Louise (Tricia Vassey), the daughter of local boss Vargo (Henry Silva). The assignment hits a snag. When Ghost Dog takes his first shot, he thinks Frank is alone. But Louise is actually sitting in an adjoining chair, unseen from Ghost Dog's initial vantage point, reading Rashomon (1915). He flees. This would seem to be the killing’s big mistake — not preparing for Louise’s presence. But the big flaw, it turns out, was Louie’s decision to assign Ghost Dog this job at all. Frank would have been in hot water anyway, but Vargo doesn't want to be implicated in killing a made man — a fully initiated Mafia member — like Frank. Ghost Dog subsequently becomes a most-wanted-style figure. The life of the hitman and the samurai may mostly be opposed, but in common is the precariousness of the trade. A new confrontation can as easily end as predicted — another day on the job — as it may also introduce catastrophe.
Jarmusch’s unhurried, offbeat homage to samurai and mafia movies can be touching — especially in scenes revolving around Ghost Dog’s interactions with his only two friends — and it can also be funny: the mob types particularly reveal themselves goofily one-noted caricatures. But Ghost Dog perhaps best serves as an affecting, if markedly absurd, tone poem on intentional isolation. Is it, in Ghost Dog’s case specifically, possible for the practice to be very spiritually rewarding in the long term? (The question is posed though never exactly answered.)
A less excusable ambiguity in the movie is arguably Ghost Dog’s own inscrutability. We don’t know anything about him except that he pledged his loyalty to Louie after Louie saved him during a mugging a few years ago. Ever since, Louie has paid Ghost Dog for all his contracts one time annually — on the first day of autumn. (“A samurai must always stay loyal to his boss — no matter what happens,” Ghost Dog says.) These men don’t really know each other — they only communicate by pigeon — but Louie seems to have become attached to this consummate professional. When Vargo concludes that Ghost Dog will have to be knocked off for the Frank thing, Louie appears genuinely worried. (Tormey’s performance expertly rides a razor’s edge: his Louie appears to still have a heart after decades of this emotionally grueling work but has also learned to deaden himself to some of its other uglier aspects.)
What of Ghost Dog the person? What in his past has led him to this way of life, no less with an idiosyncratic devotion to a samurai's principles? We surmise a great deal of tragedy; one wishes Jarmusch at minimum gave us a line or two to clarify where his oddball hero comes from. But I suppose this elusiveness is the way Ghost Dog himself would want it. Pearline’s mother has told her daughter that Ghost Dog never talks to anybody and doesn’t have any friends. When Pearline and Ghost Dog get to know each other, he doesn’t offer her any more details about himself, other than that it’s not true that he doesn’t talk to anybody — he’s talking to her — and that his best friend is the ice-cream man right over there. He’ll tell her only what he wants her to know. A