Review: Ghost Dog (dir. Jim Jarmusch, 1999)

[Cross-posted from Kamera, and written in 2000.]

“We’re like two ancient tribes, both almost extinct… And everything seems to be changing around us.” – Ghost Dog

There can’t be too many films that list a ‘Philosophical Consultant’ in the credits but Ghost Dog does, and there are signs that he earned his keep. While clearly Jarmusch’s most accessible and perhaps his funniest film to date, it is still a fluid, intelligent, innovative piece. Questions of social and cinematic history are raised with grace and humour, yet the principal line of action is allowed to rumble along enjoyably.

Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is an ascetic loner who shares his ramshackle rooftop home with a coop of homing pigeons and lives his life according to the teachings of an 18th-century samurai code, ‘Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai’. He is also a valued, if unorthodox, hitman who, despite his physical bulk is renowned for his ability to carry out hits unseen and untraced: the twelve hits he has performed for local mafia capo Louie (John Tormey), have all been flawless. But his latest hit, on one of Louie’s fellow mafiosi, Handsome Frank, goes wrong when he is seen by Frank’s girlfriend Louise (Tricia Vessey), the daughter of mafia don Ray Vargo. Vargo (Henry Silva) orders Ghost Dog to be killed, precipitating a violent clash between Ghost Dog and his employers.

The three ecosystems that Jarmusch collides in his films – mafia, samurai and rap – create a keenly-observed backdrop of incongruity and bewilderment as well as bringing up issues of thematic and aesthetic interest. Of particular note is the outstanding soundtrack produced by RZA, of the Shaolin-steeped East Coast rap collective Wu-Tang Clan. RZA even appears to have convinced Jarmusch of the validity of the aesthetics of sampling.

The film and its characters, aware of their own cinematic lineage but equally trapped by their inability to live up to it, appear acutely aware of the past and how it informs and comments on the present. Two ways of life, with rap culture as the backdrop, are opposed: Ghost Dog’s solitary, reflective, ritualised lifestyle in the sky and the shambolic, ageing mafiosi on the streets. Both, says Ghost Dog, are ‘ancient tribes’, doomed in the culture rising up around them, yet both listen to rap and hip-hop. Both operate by feudalistic codes deemed obsolete and anti-social by contemporary society, yet both codes have their eulogies and myths, not least in film.

Samurai films dealt largely with samurai in the Tokugawa period, when economic and political stability rendered the warrior class obsolete. These films concern themselves with the heroism and futility of the samurai trying to preserve their increasingly marginalised and devalued way of life. What is crucial is that there is no doubt, in either hero’s mind nor in that of the viewer, that he will fail: he is doomed from the start no matter what he does. The gangster film, originally concerned (like that other great American cinematic myth, the western) with frontiers, boundaries and turf wars, has now reached a stage in which the post-mafia now appearing even on our TV screens in The Sopranos.

Jarmusch’s mafiosi, in particular, seem to be well aware that they fall comically short of the cinematic mafia myth, but seem able to do little about it, even to the extent of being barracked and baited by children in streets that used to be theirs.

By contrast, Ghost Dog is in harmony with his environment as a samurai hero should be. Though corpulent, he moves with grace and stealth and kills with detached and ruthless efficiency. That the mafiosi in Ghost Dog need reading glasses, are three months behind on their rent and are obese, inept and petulant is clearly a source of amusement. The overflowing anger, frustration and violence of their behaviour contrasts with the elegance and economy of the samurai way. Their ineffectual, often innocuous nature is betrayed by their mesmerised addiction to cartoons (especially to cartoon violence), prefiguring the actual violence visited upon them through Ghost Dog’s revenge.

And while Ghost Dog may have given himself over entirely to an ancient and exotic philosophy and may even feel the requisite tug between ‘giri’ (duty) and ‘ninjo’ (feelings) he is, despite the sheen of philosophy, still a hired killer. His skills have been developed and perfected not solely in a search for transcendence, but as marketable skills, and the infirmity and incompetence of his adversaries puts his superiority over them in perspective. Even so, he is respected by rappers and mafiosi alike, by the latter especially since he is dispatching them “in the old way”.

Ghost Dog’s careful lack of history, his hybrid lifestyle, his affinity with pigeons and animals in general, his assumed name (to all intents and purposes he is a revenant, and to Louie he shows the faithfulness of ‘man’s best friend’) all mark him out as a still, self-contained presence at the heart of the film. Yet his sense of honour – and his demise – hinge on the one memory to which we are allowed access: his naively faithful master/retainer relationship with Louie. This is based on Ghost Dog’s belief that he is indebted to the mafia capo who saved a teenaged Ghost Dog from two gun-toting white assailants. As Ghost Dog remembers it, his assailant’s gun is pointed at him, but in Louie’s account, the gun is pointed not at Ghost Dog, but at Louie himself.

The gap between the two accounts is reinforced by the appearance of the short story “Rashomon”, on which Kurosawa’s film is based, as a leitmotiv throughout the film. This serves to emphasise the film’s concern with histories and stories, both personal and tribal, the unreliability of memory, and the manipulation of that unreliability.

It is also important to remember that action is set in motion by “Rashomon”. Ghost Dog stops to pick up the book when he has carried out his hit on Handsome Frank at the very beginning of the film, and is seen by Louise Vargo, whose book it is. And at the end of the film, it is Louise who stands at the head of the new mafia order – and she has her book back. Insofar as this is a story of revenge and its timing, it is as much Louise’s story as Ghost Dog’s.

The principal reference point for Ghost Dog is Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 film, Le Samourai. Jarmusch namechecks Melville (another perceived ‘maverick’ who worked outside the studio system and offered inspiration to a generation of independent filmmakers) in his credits, along with Akira Kurosawa and the prolific Seijun Suzuki.

In effect transposing Melville’s hardboiled hitman to an East Coast location, Jarmusch cements the samurai/hitman connection by making Ghost Dog an avid reader and quoter of a heretic samurai code, by having him practise sword techniques and pray on his rooftop, and by engaging him in a master-retainer relationship with Louie. Among other echoes, Ghost Dog wears white editor’s gloves when carrying out a hit, and, in a nice joke on Melville’s anti-hero, Jarmusch gives Ghost Dog an electronic device for disabling car alarms and opening car doors (in Le Samourai, Alain Delon has a hefty and unwieldy bunch of keys to carry out the same job).

Ghost Dog’s facility in gaining access and breaking codes is another thing that sets him apart from the mafiosi he faces. From his vantage point and with his attitude, he has a better perspective on events than his opponents. His “best friend” is a Haitian ice-cream vendor, Raymond (Isaach de Bankolé), who speaks only French, and although Ghost Dog speaks no French, they appear to be able to pick up each other’s thread. A typically Jarmuschian theme (see Mystery Train), this cuts away at the primacy of verbal communication: Jarmusch is as interested in what is said without language as he is in words themselves.

Consequently, codes of conduct, of dress and self-adornment and of music, all have their part to play in Ghost Dog. The stylisation of Ghost Dog’s behaviour in particular requires us to decode him less through the Bushido philosophy he quotes than through his intricately braided hair, his clothing (initially unremarkable, nondescript, even; later deliberately brash), the gesture with which he loads a CD (21 the volume level every time) and the movement with which he replaces his gun in its holster. A walking sign-system, he communicates as much by his manner as he does by what he says. Like the samurai, no gesture or ornament without its significance.

Related ideas of self-fashioning, naming, creation, recur throughout: Pearline (Camille Winbush), the young girl Ghost Dog encounters in the local park, and in whom he finds friendship and spiritual continuance, has a copy of Frankenstein in her lunchbox which prompts a moment of identification in Ghost Dog; the scene in which a contract is put out on Ghost Dog ambles into a marvellous discussion of adopted names (and a fine joke playing on the notion of gansta rap), picking up on the self-styled Ghost Dog, Native Americans, and rappers; furthermore, Ghost Dog’s adoption of the samurai ethic seems at time uncomfortably close to self-help therapy rather than a philosophical position, however many enigmatic sections from Hagakure are quoted. This all serves to raise the question: Is a samurai, an assassin, a mafioso, even a rapper forged, or born? Even the rappers have to practise in Ghost Dog.

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