Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For January we’re celebrating the work of godfather of independent film Jim Jarmusch. Read the rest of our coverage here.
If you were in college in the early 2000s, you’re more than likely familiar with the DVD cover of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Rising to ubiquitous dorm room status, the 1999 Jim Jarmusch crime-thriller-by-way-of-character-study is a bizarre meditation on… well, that’s the question, isn’t it?
Do you have to “get” a movie to enjoy it?
Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog would argue no.
Ghost Dog does not shy away from its absurdity. Centering around Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker), a hitman for the mob who steeps himself in the Eastern tradition of the samurai, the film is presented both as a linear narrative as well as a vignette piece in the tradition of Jarmusch’s own Coffee and Cigarettes. Segments of the film are introduced with passages and text from the Hagakure, the book of the samurai, which inform not only the themes of the movie but directly refer to upcoming events.
Part mob flick, part hip-hop-fueled Eastern philosophy exploration, part Forest Whittaker Driving Simulator, Ghost Dog defies typical characterization. Just when one believes they have Ghost Dog figured out, the audience is greeted with a clip of The Itchy and Scratchy Show, the cartoon-within-a-show-within-The Simpsons, just before a low-frills, blood-soaked action sequence. There are at least half a dozen cartoon clips sprinkled throughout Ghost Dog, from Woody Woodpecker to Betty Boop and if you asked this reviewer why they would be hard-pressed to come up with a definitive reason.
Some themes are readily apparent – from the moment Whittaker grabs Louise Vargo’s (Tricia Vessey) tattered paperback copy of Rashōmon, viewers will be keen to pick up on the differences in flashback points of view – specifically a subtle but important change between how Louie (John Tormey) and Ghost Dog remember their first meeting.
There is also a prevalent undercurrent of the perception of community and the act of othering. As Ghost Dog wears the target of mob vengeance on his back for the entirety of the second act (a vengeance that, honestly, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense) he is able to literally look his pursuers in the eye on the street without fear of recognition. Conversely, Ghost Dog is on a head nod and, “yo Ghost Dog!” basis with his community.
Everyone on the street knows Ghost Dog, and through the exploration of Ghost Dog’s friendship with the Haitian-born, French-speaking ice cream man Raymond (Isaach De Bankolé) Jarmusch demonstrates that respect, status, and honor are not just words from a mob movie, but personal beliefs that transcend language barriers or social status.
Smash these scenes next to straight-to-the-camera racist diatribes from the mob bosses and underbosses, interspersed with mafia renditions of Flava Flav lyrics, and it would almost appear as if Jarmusch is stating that the mafia is LARPing their themes of respect, status, and honor, while Ghost Dog and his community are living it.
Do you have to ‘get’ a movie to enjoy it? Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog would argue no.
Pulling the disparate elements together rests on the shoulders of Whitaker’s performance. Jarmusch is on record that the role was written with Whitaker in mind, and had he passed, the movie would never have materialized. This is not the unhinged Whitaker of Rogue One or Battlefield Earth, but a far more subdued and introspective character piece, one that juggles the absurdity of a modern-day samurai hit man who swirls his gun like a katana with the deeper meanings of mortality, of obligation, of existence.
No conversation about Ghost Dog would be complete without a mention of the soundtrack. Produced by Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA (his first film contribution), the beats and rhythms of RZA’s music seep into the fabric of the film’s gangland intrigue. From diegetic freestyles to subtle-yet-pulse-pounding driving beats, Whitaker’s Ghost Dog always has a CD in mind to pair with his particular mission.
You don’t have to “get” Ghost Dog to enjoy it; it’s an experience more open to interpretation, imparting a feeling, a mood, something that sticks with you even if you have trouble articulating why. If, like so many coming of age in the early aughts, it has just existed as a DVD cover or dorm room poster, you owe it to yourself to dive in, roll with it, and see what you’re left with on the other side.