Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai 

It's a tough room. The "made men" sit at the table in the back room of Sonny Valerio's (Cliff Gorman) hangout, a closed-up Chinese restaurant, waiting for an answer from Louie (John Tormey). Louie, a foot soldier in the Vargo crime family, nervously smokes his cigarette under the disapproving -- yet familial -- looks of Sonny, Ray Vargo (Henry Silva), and Old Consigliere (Gene Ruffini). Sonny wants to know who Louie's contract killer is, the one who killed Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow) in the presence of Vargo's daughter, Louise (Tricia Vessey). It's not that they didn't want Handsome Frank dead, but if Louise was in the room when he was whacked, then whoever whacked him should be "eliminated." Besides, Sonny reasons, Frank was a made man, and Louie's hired hit man, who lives under the moniker of Ghost Dog, was not.

Therein lies the dilemma that propels, outwardly, at least, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai by filmmaker Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man). At the film's core, however, is not a standard crime story of revenge and vendettas, but an exploration of how two dying worlds face off and how neither will really be the victor, no matter who is left standing at the end. The East-meets-West approach is all the more potent for the use of actual text quoted from Hegakure: The Book of the Samurai, which the title character (played by Forest Whitaker, Phenomenon) reads.

Ghost Dog is no common faceless, nameless contract hit man. When first seen, he is reading Hegakure in his simple shack built on the roof of an apartment building. His days consist of bowing to a homemade altar, practicing his sword movements, and taking care of his pigeons, which also serve as carriers for his messages to and from Louie. His simple lifestyle extends to the method of payment he prefers from Louie: once a year on the "first day of autumn." This fact amuses, if also confounds, Louie's bosses.

Where Jarmusch succeeds most is in how subtly he paints the differences between the worlds of Ghost Dog and Louie. Whereas Ghost Dog has almost no possessions and spends his time reading, Louie and his bosses cavort in Sonny's Chinese restaurant playing cards and flipping through an endless array of cartoons that Jarmusch uses to comment on the violence between the two main characters. More important, though, there is an irony to the two men suddenly becoming adversaries; in flashbacks we learn that Ghost Dog, whose life Louie once saved, sees himself as Louie's servant and that, in true samurai teachings and spirit, will never harm his master.

Jarmusch's oddball humor defines Ghost Dog's relationships as well as magnifies opposite sides of the same coin, human communication. Raymond, the French ice cream vendor (Isaach De Bankolé), doesn't speak or understand English, nor does Ghost Dog speak or understand French; the men understand each other in a way that works on a comic level as well as a universal one. Pearline (Camille Winbush), the young girl who befriends Ghost Dog, carries books in her lunchbox, which in itself is symbolic of the need for words. Somewhere on the periphery is Louise, who passes a copy of Rashomon to Ghost Dog, who passes it to Pearline. Eventually, the book is passed to Louie.

The film's casting adds to its appeal. The made men are played by character actors (including Victor Argo) -- the kind of men whose faces suggest living. Vessey, as the classic mob princess in Louise Brooks bangs and a vintage red slip, suggests in her portrayal none of the brattiness often seen in such characters. Like Ghost Dog, she possesses a Zenlike quality; she is probably the most remote character of the film, almost an observer.

Visually and aurally, Ghost Dog is swathed in touches that are comforting and jarring. Jarmusch's camerawork in Ghost Dog's scenes reveals the inner eye of the samurai; Jarmusch achieves this by extending the lens' view so that it almost seems to be rippling visually. The Rza, founder of Wu-Tang Clan, here offers his first feature film score that captures the consciousness of Ghost Dog's world as much as it resonates with the urban setting. As for the setting: Only a New Yorker will know which borough Jarmusch filmed, because the terrain doesn't advertise itself. Only Jarmusch can film a street in New York and make it otherworldly. (R) Rating: 8

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