Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch
With Forrest Whittaker, Henry Silva, John Tormey, Isaach de Bankolé and Camille Winbush
Distributed by Artisan Entertainment
Opens in New York in March
Jim Jarmusch accurately described his 1984 breakthrough STRANGER THAN PARADISE as "a neo-realistic black comedy in the style of an imaginary Eastern European director obsessed with Ozu and THE HONEYMOONERS" ; few American directors have been as visibly influenced by European and Asian cinema. Just as his films have often been set at cultural crossroads, be they Graceland or the American West during its settling by white men, their form has also reflected one. A patchwork of gangster/samurai mythology drawn from sources all over the map, GHOST DOG is no exception. The life of its titular anti-hero, a well-read, deeply spiritual man who happens to be a hitman, offers material for both comedy and tragedy, but the latter prevails. Although it's a step backwards from the vast political and historical ambition of DEAD MAN, that film's haunted spirit and disillusioned take on genre tropes still hang over it.
Ghost Dog (Whittaker) lives on a rooftop shack, surrounded by pigeon coops. These birds are his means of communication with his boss Louie (Tormey), a mafioso who orders him on periodic kills. Eight years ago, Louie saved Ghost Dog's life, and the latter has worked silently and efficiently for him since then, but their relationship begins to crumble when the daughter of Ray Vargo (Henry Silva), the head of the crime family Louie works for, turns up unexpectedly at one of his hits. Despite Louie's generosity to Ghost Dog, Ray's gangsters embark on a vendetta against him.
Jarmusch's jokes usually center on a deadpan incongruity: a middle-aged mafioso sings the praises of Flavor Flav and starts reciting his lyrics; a schoolgirl totes a trashy 50s paperback in her lunchbox alongside FRANKENSTEIN and W. E. DuBois' THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK; another gangster is addicted to TV cartoons, the more violent the better; Gary Farmer pops up out of DEAD MAN on Ghost Dog's rooftop to dis the "stupid fucking white man." Taken individually, these details are all pretty funny - Jarmusch also gets much mileage out of one actor's astonishingly rigid facial expression - but they seem out of place with the film's spiritual concerns. The absurdist humor (and violence) in DEAD MAN meshed well with its hallucinatory, nightmarish quality; every grisly gag marked a signpost on the road to Hell. GHOST DOG doesn't quite succeed in playing both ends off against the middle; its swerves between playing violence for laughs and lamenting the loss Ghost Dog leaves in his wake are especially jarring.
The debt GHOST DOG owes to Jean-Pierre Melville's 1967 LE SAMOURAI is reflected not only in its subtitle and use of Japanese epigrams - Melville's was apocryphal, but I was surprised to discover in the end credits that THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI is a real book - but in Ghost Dog's apparently affectless persona and solitary nature, reminiscent of Alain Delon's incarnation of Melville's equally alienated hitman. Yet the two characters are ultimately quite different. Ghost Dog is devoted to his private moral code, inspired by THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI's description of the conduct of samurai and retainers, even though its morality looks absurd by conventional standards. The sentimental streak of GHOST DOG would be out of place in the world of LE SAMOURAI, although not in the work of Melville disciple John Woo. Needless to say, this sentimentality - respecting women, children and animals while mowing down anyone else who gets in the way - sometimes looks pretty perverse, especially when Ghost Dog avenges the death of a bear - and a racist remark - by killing its hunters.
Even so, Ghost Dog's code is a workable defense for him, and the film suggests that it's an improvement over the nihilism represented by Ray's family. At his weakest moments, Jarmusch sometimes seems to be searching for a code of his own and passing time by exploring genre codes and signs at a distant remove from the real world, but GHOST DOG ultimately takes death seriously enough to make the betrayal of the rules Ghost Dog lives by, amoral and self-serving as they might be, into something quite affecting. As much as Jarmusch likes to joke around, he's got a rare gift for the elegy.