Throughout Jim Jarmusch’s long career as a filmmaker, spanning fifteen feature films (as of 2020) he has brought to life great, memorable performances from both starring and small roles alike. It is difficult to argue, however, that he has coaxed a greater, more commanding performance than that given by Forest Whitaker in 1999’s classic, Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai.
Forest Whitaker is among the great actors of our time. Active since 1981, the native Texan is filled with interesting contradictions. He is a massive figure with uncommon grace. He effortlessly delivers a commanding presence backed by a soft, gentle manner. Few actors could bring to life both a despotic killer (like Idi Amin) and a dignified Butler.
The way Jarmusch tells the story, he sat down to write the role of Ghost Dog with only one actor in mind. If Whitaker had passed, he would likely have moved on from the project altogether.
For this reason, Ghost Dog and Whitaker are synonymous.
The titular character is a modern-day assassin. He works for the Italian mafia, but he answers to one man named Louie (John Tormey).
Louie saved Ghost Dog’s life. The event bonds them very deeply. Ghost Dog does not simply view Louie as his boss though. He refers to himself as Louie’s retainer, harkening back to the days of the samurai.
Ghost Dog follows the samurai code. This marks him as a special contract killer. In his private life, hecommits to a life of solitude. His only companions are his rooftop pigeons and disciplines centered on meditation and martial art.
What Moves Ghost Dog?
The story of Ghost Dog is simple.
Louie calls Ghost Dog to whack Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow) another gangster. The usually reliable hitman goes about his business, knocking him off while he watches cartoons, a motif throughout the film.
The hit is a success. Trouble brews, however, when he encounters Louise (Tricia Vessey) the daughter of the boss of the local syndicate at the scene. The two exchange a few funny looks then a book before Ghost Dog runs out into the night.
Because Louise was present at the hit, the syndicate turns on Ghost Dog. They need to root him out, a vendetta which quickly turns on them as the assassin takes matters into his own hands and strikes back. The story follows Ghost Dog as he knocks off his pursuers one at a time.
Styles, Quirks & Ice Cream
Ghost Dog’s simple story comes to life by Jarmusch’s unique points.
The narrative breaks up with passages from The Book Of The Samurai. Whitaker performs the voice over with a cold-blooded calm.
These passages appear between scenes. They usually describe the part of Ghost Dog’s code we are about to witness. They’re unique, thought-provoking and they give the story the feeling of a fable.
The kill scenes are inspired. Rather than recycle the same scene over, the light-footed Whitaker dances and darts rather than bulldozing through.
The film is peppered with motifs. We meet characters watching old fashioned cartoons, usually depicting scenes mirroring what we’re about to see. In Ghost Dog, the criminal underworld brims with deep readers, characters exchanging books.
The soundtrack to Ghost Dog provides a devastating backdrop. RZA of Wu Tang Clan fame provides gritty urban beats, underscoring long meditative moments where we watch Ghost Dog at work.
Then we meet Raymond the ice cream man.
Played by Jarmusch regular Isaach De Bankole, Raymond is Ghost Dog’s one real friend. He refers to him as his best friend. Although the ice cream man only speaks French (his comedic descriptions of ice cream are hilarious) the two men deeply understand one another.
When they’re together, it’s as though they share one mind.
Raymond holds the entire story together. While Ghost Dog is a man without peer in the world of crime, his friend tethers him to the world at large. Without Raymond, Ghost Dog is lost. This is why, when Ghost Dog senses the end is near, he reconciles with Raymond.
Trouble With Ghost Dog?
Many performances in Ghost Dog are outstanding and the story comes together as a unique crime film. There are, however, a few issues preventing it from being counted as great.
The story overreaches for a comedic effect in a few places. As an example, in an early scene where Jarmusch introduces us to Vargo’s gang. His sidekick older gangsters are caricatures. One plays the wide-eyed, “oddball” gangster while the other simply spouts racist junk.
They’re not compelling.
Gary Farmer (who was excellent in the psycho-western, Dead Man) is sorely underused as an actor. He appears in a single scene when his role as a companion to Ghost Dog’s urban solitude begs for something more. Jarmusch brings small characters to life like few other filmmakers, a fact that makes Farmer’s small role all the more mystifying.
Lastly, Vargo’s daughter, Tricia is a befuddling character. Her presence at the initial killing of Handsome Frank sets the story into motion. Later, we see her glassy-eyed and scared when Ghost Dog clears the mansion of henchmen. In these scenes, we get the sense that Tricia is trapped. She is the familiar gangster’s daughter who wants nothing to do with the business.
In the end, however, with Ghost Dog bleeding out on the street after Louie takes his life, we find her riding in the back of a limo. At this point, she seems to have taken over her father’s seat at the head of the table.
Crime films are a staple of both the American cinema as well as the globe. In Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai, Jim Jarmusch crafts a movie that scratches many unique itches.
The characters are largely outstanding.
The story adheres to a coherent story thread, following the consequences of a single act to its dire end.
The visual style is second to none.
Few films are comparable, if any. Brought together under Jarmusch’s masterful directing, the film is must-see.
Did you watch “Ghost Dog”?
What did you think of the film? Where does it stack up with other films in Jim Jarmusch’s expansive catalog?
Did you think of it as a good crime film?
Leave me a comment below and tell me what you thought.
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