Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

The revolution continues. In 1999, many people cheered that filmmakers are breaking out of the box, finally getting the chance to make truly unusual movies and be accepted by the mainstream. See The Blair Witch Project and Being John Malkovich if you still need proof. The beginnings of 2000 have signaled that things are going to continue to get progressively weirder. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is a bizarre little movie that draws parallels between organized crime of present day and ancient Japanese Samurai warriors. Arthouse director (is there such a thing?) Jim Jarmusch has made a deliberately paced, utterly compelling meditation about the mafia.

Ghost Dog is not your run-of-the-mill contract killer. He lives in a shack on a rooftop. In his spare time, he plays with his trained pigeons and practices with his sword. He can only be reached with a messenger bird. Nobody knows his real name. He’s a black man, played by the astonishing Forest Whitaker, and yet he does jobs for the Italian mafia. Why? We find out that a mobster saved his life one day and according to the ancient Samurai code, by which he strictly abides, he is forever indebted to his savior.

But things aren’t so simple. After a misunderstanding occurs during one of Ghost Dog’s jobs, the mafia decides it’s time to eliminate him. Unfortunately, none of them know anything about him — there’s only the pigeons and the enigmatic name. So they send people with guns searching rooftops and when they trash his abode in his absence, all hell breaks loose.

There are, of course, doubts about Ghost Dog’s sanity, though the film doesn’t allow us to make a forthright conclusion. The fact that he lives alone on a rooftop and follows the Samurai code could, perhaps, be chalked up to mere eccentricity, but what about the fact that he befriends a Haitian ice cream truck driver? The driver speaks only French. Ghost Dog speaks only English. But doesn’t hinder their conversations.

Forest Whitaker, director of Waiting to Exhale and an even better actor, carries the movie. His subdued, expressive performance is nothing short of amazing; I don’t think that the film is eligible for the 2000 Academy Awards but I would otherwise be screaming “Oscar!” He doesn’t get to speak an awful lot, putting him in the difficult position of projecting feelings through subtle (very subtle, considering the character’s Vulcan-like stoicism) body language.

Jim Jarmusch inserts plenty of self-effacing humor to keep things interesting. Aside from some intentionally funny dialogue and an Italian mafioso who is a fan of gangsta rap, the Way of the Samurai apparently includes advice on how to improve a warrior’s complexion. Much of Ghost Dog‘s beauty comes from the effortless way it combines humor, suspense, poignancy and theme into a balanced and entertaining movie.

If there’s a flaw here, it’s to be found in the film’s last 10 minutes, when it takes too many steps towards the pretentious. The ending was needlessly murky and surreal; perhaps an attempt at allegory that didn’t quite work the way Jarmusch expected it to. A movie as affecting as this one didn’t need a complication to cap it off, it needed a resolution.

Other than that, I can scarcely think of ways to improve this engrossing, original, near-brilliant production. If regular films from the Hollywood movie mill no longer satisfy you, this is one to seek out.

-- Eugene Novikov

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Screening Log


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Score: C

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Score: C+

10 Years

Jamie Linden, 2012

Score: B-

The Place Beyond the Pines

Derek Cianfrance, 2013

Score: B+

Warm Bodies

Jonathan Levine, 2013

Score: C

Beautiful Creatures

Richard LaGravanese, 2013

Score: B-

The Window

Ted Tetzlaff, 1949

Score: B+

The Chase

Arthur Ripley, 1946

Score: B

Street of Chance

Jack Hively, 1942

Score: C

The Taste of Money

Im Sang-Soo, 2013

Score: C+

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