Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is the story of a hired hitman for the Mafia who lives in a very strict code similar to the ways of the samurai. The film is an exploration of a man trying to do his job with a sense of honor as he becomes pursued by those who feel like he isn’t doing their job. Starring Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, Tricia Vessey, Henry Silva, and Isaach de Bankole. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is a provocative yet stylish take on the samurai film from Jim Jarmusch.

For those working for the mob, they’re hired to do a job or they get whacked. In the case of this mysterious hitman known as Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker), he does things differently as he does a simple job for a man who saved his life when he was a teenager. Yet, Ghost Dog lives in a very strict code that is similar to the ways of the samurai as he does everything in complete secrecy as his only form of contact is through carrier pigeons but only to the man he is loyal to in local mob head Louie (John Tormey). After a hit was delivered, Louie’s bosses decided that Ghost Dog had to be eliminated where Louie informs Ghost Dog of what is to happen.

Jim Jarmusch’s screenplay is definitely engrossing for the way a man lives a very strict lifestyle that has him living by himself with only pigeons to keep him company while he has very few friends. One of which is a Haitian ice-cream man named Raymond (Isaach de Bankole) who only speaks French while he also befriends a young girl named Pearline (Camille Winbush) who loves books. Still, Ghost Dog is a man who operates in a very strict manner where he borrows cars to go somewhere that is beyond walking distance while maintaining a code in a world where honor and loyalty is waning as he’s being pursued by men who are trying to adjust to changing times where honor and loyalty don’t really mean anything. While Ghost Dog uses guns as weapons, he does it in a way that is similar to the ways of the samurai while sparing whoever are innocent including a mob boss’ daughter (Tricia Vessey) whom she let borrows her copy of the book Rashomon by Ryunosuke Akutagawa to Ghost Dog who lends it to Pearline.

There are a lot of allusions to the way Jarmusch explores the code of the samurai as he often injects the film with voice-over reading of Ghost Dog reading text from Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s book Hagakure. With the text also present in the film, it plays into the philosophy that Ghost Dog is trying to hold on to in a world that is changing and filled with lots of corruption and violence. While Ghost Dog is a man who kills, he is only doing it to save himself and Louie from harm since he owes Louie for saving his life. While the two men have different memories about the day Louie saved Ghost Dog’s life as a teen, they are drawn to each other as Louie is a man who also works under a code but a different one that is on its way out.

Jarmusch’s direction is quite straightforward in terms of his framing and presentation though there are a lot of tributes to the films that Jarmusch is basing on. Notably samurai movies and Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 film Le Samourai that features a similar story about a hitman who lives in a strict code inspired by the samurai. Shot on location in New Jersey, the film has unique look that plays to this world that seems ever-changing where the mob are trying to adjust to these changes. Yet, the Ghost Dog character is a man who only wears dark clothes and rarely interacts with people as he is a real sharp contrast to the people he works for. Still, Jarmusch infuses some humor in the way the Mafia is portrayed as there’s one mob leader who has a love for the music of Public Enemy as he spits out rhymes from their songs.

Another aspect in Jarmusch’s direction that is interesting is the fact that there are many scenes where the mob are watching cartoons that either plays to something that is foreshadowing or to reflect the dark world they live in. Jarmusch’s approach to the violence isn’t very graphic but still confrontational in the way Ghost Dog takes care of his foes. Some of it is done in a clever yet low-key fashion to represent Ghost Dog’s violent style where he does it swiftly and that is it. The scenes where Ghost Dog and Raymond interact where despite the language barrier, the two men do seem to understand each other a bit as it’s part of Jarmusch’s unique approach to some of the film’s humor. Overall, Jarmusch creates a very fascinating yet stylish film about a man maintaining a code of the samurai in the modern world.

Cinematographer Robby Muller does excellent work with the film‘s photography from some of the low-key lighting schemes at night to the more colorful scenes in the daytime interior and exterior settings. Editor Jay Rabinowitz does brilliant work with the film‘s very stylish editing with the use of layered dissolves to express a few flashback scenes and montages along with some jump-cuts and fade-outs to help present some of the text that Ghost Dog is reading. Production designer Ted Berner, with set decorator Ron von Blomberg and art director Mario Ventenilla, does nice work with the look of the apartment that Ghost Dog lives in as well as the ice cream truck that Raymond runs.

Costume designer John A. Dunn does terrific work with the costumes from the street-based clothing of Ghost Dog to the more refined suits the gangsters wear. Sound designer Anthony J. Ciccolini III does wonderful work with the sound to capture the intimacy of some of the film‘s violent scenes as well as low-key yet layered sounds of nature to express the kind of peace that Ghost Dog craves for. The film’s music by RZA is fantastic for its rhythmic yet intoxicating music that fuses hip-hop with low-key electronics to set a mood while its soundtrack is a nice mix of hip-hop and reggae that features music from RZA and some of his cohorts from the Wu-Tang Clan as well as Public Enemy and Willi Williams doing a cover of the Clash’s Armagideon Time.

The casting by Ellen Lewis and Laura Rosenthal is amazing for the ensemble that is created as it features appearances from Richard Portnow as the target Ghost Dog is hired to kill, Gary Farmer as a Native American pigeon farmer the Mafia harasses, RZA as another samurai Ghost Dog meets, and Gene Ruffini as an old consigliere. Other standout small roles include Cliff Gorman as a mob boss who loves Public Enemy and Henry Silva as a mob leader who orders Ghost Dog’s death. Tricia Vessey is very good as the daughter of the mob leader who always find herself in an assassination as she’s often spared. Camille Winbush is wonderful as the young girl Pearline whose interest in books has her befriending Ghost Dog who lends her a book. Isaach de Bankole is excellent as Ghost Dog’s Haitian friend Raymond as he always spout the good attributes of ice cream while often conversing with Raymond about things in life.

John Tormey is superb as Ghost Dog’s retainer Louie who is aware of Ghost Dog’s skills as he tries to save himself from the mob while dealing with all of the chaos that is happening while trying to maintain his own sense of honor. Finally, there’s Forest Whitaker in a riveting performance as Ghost Dog where Whitaker has this very low-key restraint to his performance that allows Ghost Dog to be a man of discipline but also a man full of life as he’s also quite charming as it is definitely one of Whitaker’s finest performances.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is an incredible film from Jim Jarmusch that features a brilliant performance from Forest Whitaker. The film is definitely one of Jarmusch’s more accessible features as well as a great homage to the samurai movies. It’s also a film that explores a man’s desire to find peace and honor in a world ravaged by change and chaos. In the end, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is a phenomenal film from Jim Jarmusch.

Jim Jarmusch Films: Permanent Vacation - Stranger Than Paradise - Down By Law - Mystery Train - Night on Earth - Dead Man - Year of the Horse - Coffee & Cigarettes - Broken Flowers - The Limits of Control - Only Lovers Left Alive - Paterson - Gimme Danger - (The Dead Don't Die) - The Auteurs #27: Jim Jarmusch

© thevoid99 2013


Chris said...

For me, Ghost Dog is one of Jarmusch's best, I love how atmospheric it is. Wild guess, maybe the pigeons on the roof are a tribute to On The Waterfront. Yeah, Whitaker was great, why isn't he making these type of movies anymore, shame.

thevoid99 said...

@Chris-It could be a tribute to that as Jarmusch is obviously a mark for all cinephiles. I don't understand Forest Whitaker's choices. He's better than the films he chooses to do.

Dave Enkosky said...

Definitely one of my favorite Jarmusch pictures.

thevoid99 said...

@Dave Enkosky-Right now, it's becoming one of my favorites as well.

Dan Heaton said...

Nice job. I saw Ghost Dog in the theaters and think that I wasn't totally ready to embrace it. Since that point, I've caught up with a lot more of Jarmusch's work like Down by Law and Stranger Than Paradise, and I expect that I'd like Ghost Dog even more today.

thevoid99 said...

@Dan Heaton-I wasn't sure what to expect from it either but it ended up being so much fun. I plan to catch up w/ some of Jim Jarmusch's other films as he is going to be one of my Auteurs subjects later this year.