Thursday, March 21, 2013
Cinema of Cool, Part 4: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
The baddest mother with a lazy eye you’ll ever come across.
“The Way of the Samurai is found in death. Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one's body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords…And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead. This is the substance of the way of the samurai.”
So opens Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai - with a quote from the Hagakure, which is also quoted intermittently throughout the rest of the film. Samurai culture is far more important here than in the film it takes its chief inspiration from: Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai. For Melville, the use of the word “samurai” came primarily through main character Jef Costello’s sparse, solitary lifestyle. For Jarmusch, the way of the samurai forms the backbone of the movie - informing and commenting upon every scene, and completely wrapped around the main character, Ghost Dog. But besides their interest in exploring the samurai code or not, both films are inherently tied together through one aspect inherent to all samurai (and other warrior culture) fiction: the certainty of death. For just as Jef Costello before him, Ghost Dog is dead from the moment we first see him.
Forest Whitaker plays the role of Ghost Dog - an ethereal hitman who carries out contracts for the mob at the behest of his master, Louie (John Tormey), who he feels he owes a debt to on account of the mobster inadvertently saving his life. On the hit that opens the film, Ghost Dog is seen by the head Mafioso’s daughter, so word comes down from on high that the hip-hop samurai hitman must be taken care of. With his back against the wall, Ghost Dog handles the situation in the only way he knows: violently, with the bodies of many gangsters littered along his path.
Whitaker has always been a supremely fascinating performer, and here gets possibly his best role as the title character. There is something very wrong with Ghost Dog, although a casual glance would reveal nothing more than a soft-spoken bear of a man. But the fact that he fashions himself a modern-day samurai belies an intensely damaged psyche: we never delve too deeply into Ghost Dog’s past - we in fact never really get a clear picture of what goes on in his head - but Whitaker’s subtle and nuanced performance allows us brief glimpses into his damaged soul. But despite of his being more than a little crazy, Ghost Dog is completely and utterly content with his life. It’s almost as if devoting himself to the samurai lifestyle gives him the perfect outlet to deal with whatever ails him - being so committed and disciplined acts as something of a release for his psychosis.
“Devoted” is a word that completely describes Ghost Dog - he lives on a rooftop with his own flock of pigeons (which he uses to communicate with Louie), removing himself from society and any comforts that might distract him from his strict samurai code. Being so disciplined helps give the character a certain nobility, despite the fact he’s a stone-cold killer. Again, like Costello and his legion of imitators, the ritual is everything. We open on Ghost Dog alone on his rooftop, with his pigeons, preparing for his night’s work. He cares for his weapons and equipment as if they were holy sacraments, and then takes off into the night. Just like Jef Costello, Ghost Dog wears white gloves, and he immediately sets about stealing a luxury car (but instead of a massive key ring, Ghost Dog uses a nifty electronic device that allows him to unlock and start cars with keyless entry). From there we follow his meticulous motions, as he quickly and cleanly eliminates his target. But all doesn’t go quite to plan, as the boss’ daughter (played by Tricia Vessey and looking like a real-life Betty Boop) is on the scene and sees his face. The ritual is broken, and Ghost Dog spends the rest of the movie dealing with the ramifications. Just like real-life neuroses, any breaking of the habit leads to traumatic and seemingly life-ending possibilities - at least, that’s the perception of the neurotic in question’s mind.
Modern psychology places ritualistic behavior as a clear sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder - using repetitive actions to neutralize or prohibit anxiety. At a cursory glance, characters like Ghost Dog or Jef Costello are so meticulous in their actions because they have to be; any slip up could lead to capture or death. But the fact that they are so good at their job doesn’t necessarily mean they grew such behaviors out of experience - that lifestyle lent itself rather well to their neurotic personalities, which leads to the other reason they decided to be killers: they’re drawn to death. Whether doling it out or seeking their own demise, each man is drawn to death… Possibly because they lead the life of a dead man as it is. They can still walk and talk and breathe like the living, but with their solitary lifestyles and lack of attachments, each man is virtually dead. They have nothing to live for, and therefore neither is truly alive.
In the end, characters like Ghost Dog have to die… And that’s precisely where the film stumbles a bit. Jarmusch sets Ghost Dog on a prescribed path to his own form of serene seppuku, but how he gets there never feels truly organic - Ghost Dog and his master Louie end up in a high noon draw, but it feels less like the natural outcome of the story and more like Jarmusch pushing his pieces into place. He sets the dominoes up in the right position, but the patterns they fall in are less than graceful.
Still, its measured pace and quiet, samurai demeanor make Ghost Dog a more-than-worthy successor to Le Samourai.