A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch, 1999)

Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
Ghost Dog: Forest Whitaker
Louie: John Tormey
Raymond: Isaach De Bankolé
Pearline: Camille Winbush
Sonny Valerio: Cliff Gorman
Ray Vargo: Henry Silva
Louise Vargo: Tricia Vessey

Director: Jim Jarmusch
Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch
Cinematography: Robby Müller

Watched on Starz Encore Action

The gangster-as-samurai trope has perhaps been a little overworked ever since Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï, to which Jim Jarmusch pays homage at the end of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. It takes a filmmaker of special sensibilities like Jarmusch (or for that matter Melville) to make it work, to simultaneously explore and send up the notion that the hit man in service of a mobster is somehow the modern equivalent of the warrior in liege to a feudal lord. One reason Jarmusch's film works as well as it does is that he started with the actor, Forest Whitaker, around whom he wanted to build a film. Discovering Whitaker's interest in martial arts and reading the 18th-century Hagakure, a book on the warrior code, enabled Jarmusch to put things together. The result is a smart, funny, improbable but moving fantasia on old-fashioned themes like duty and honor. Big and bearlike -- bear references are key in the film -- but surprisingly graceful, Whitaker moves through the film with the kind of focus and centeredness you expect of a samurai. He's a master of nature -- his flock of pigeons -- and of technology -- his device that enables him to unlock doors, disable alarms, and start cars. He has a second sense with people -- his ability to communicate with Raymond, the Haitian who speaks no English while Ghost Dog (we never learn his given name) speaks no French. He has a rapport with children, especially Pearline, the bookish little girl who inherits his copy of the Hagakure and seems destined to follow his path. Once again, Jarmusch has taken a familiar milieu, the New Jersey mob land known to us from The Sopranos, and transformed it, the way he reimagined Cleveland and Florida in Stranger Than Paradise (1984), New Orleans in Down by Law (1986), and Memphis in Mystery Train (1989). It's not New Jersey, of course, though the film was shot there, but The Industrial State, which seems to be next door to The Highway State, as the license plates on cars tell us. Ghost Dog floats just outside of the real world, which makes it all the more real.

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