By Jonah Walker-Sherman
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, much like the majority of Jim Jarmusch’s films, is about an attitude or, in this case, a way of life. On the surface, it’s a revenge movie, but more compelling is the underbelly of the film: a meditation on duty and radical modern Buddhism. For film plebeians of the world who only focus on plot, the genius of Jarmusch will be lost. Confusing narrative, weak supporting characters, and B-movie cinematography do nothing to plead his case. When I was describing the plot to my younger sister, she couldn’t have been less interested. I lost her at, “it’s about a homeless man who drives a lot of cars but listens to good music.”
As a writer, Jarmusch isn’t concerned with plot; for example, he never clearly explains why the gangsters want to kill the titular character, Ghost Dog. The screenplay is more of a theoretical looking glass into the modern samurai. Over several days, Ghost Dog assumes his normal life, and the plot haphazardly unfolds. However, a seemingly crucial element, like the samurai subplot, was only added by Jarmusch near the end of production. This makes me wonder what the movie is truly about.
The film focuses on an assassin named Ghost Dog, played effectively by Forest Whitaker, who lives by the ancient code of the samurai. Ghost Dog becomes the hunted after he assassinates a man that his retainer, a member of the Italian Mafia, accidentally tells him to kill. Ghost Dog manages to stay out of the way of the Mafia until they kill his pigeons, and at that point he takes a page out of John Wick’s book and sets out to kill every single member of the Mafia.
Jarmusch’s tergiversating plot and dialogue are forms only Jarmusch alone could have created. Every decision made in the movie makes no sense until you piece it back together in your head. This movie only comes together in a meditative state. In one highly unusual, but memorable, scene, Ghost Dog spends 45 seconds in a staring contest with a feral dog. It is in this way that Jarmusch makes character and atmosphere the focus of the film.
A calling card of the film is the frequency and indiscriminate way in which people die: cops, hunters, Mafia, bystanders. No one is exempt from this rule. In theory, this sounds somewhat similar to what people call Tarantino’s “cartoon violence,” but in actuality, the two couldn’t be farther apart. Every character in the world of Ghost Dog has the capacity to kill, but unlike Tarantino, Jarmusch uses violence in a manner devoid of dramatic flair, pizzazz, warning, or soundtrack.
The same lack of flair is what makes the characters in this movie so interesting, particularly Ghost Dog. It is never quite clear what to think about him. I would be hard-pressed to find a better anti-hero, but there’s something about his subtle passion for his community and environment that grips the heart and sympathy of the viewer. Ghost Dog’s acts of kindness are only shadowed by his acts of thievery, like the time he holds up two innocent men at gunpoint, or when he steals a woman’s car. My personal favourite is his hold up of a drunk couple – in the end, he steals only their clothes.
On the surface, the film is monotonous and the characters unfeeling, but a strand of profundity runs throughout the film, and that’s where its subtle intelligence lies. Why do many of the gangsters watch Felix the Cat on television? Why does Ghost Dog pray to a bowl of oranges? We never know, and Jarmusch doesn’t explain. We are left wondering whether Jarmusch just dumped a cement truck of symbolism or whether these disparate elements relate to one another. At times only the actors appear to understand the significance of their actions. You could almost see them laughing at our blindness. Unexpectedly, this makes for a thoughtful viewing experience.