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Nick-Davis.com: 100 Favorite Films
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#32: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
(USA, 1999; dir. and scr. Jim Jarmusch; cin. Robby Müller; with Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, Cliff Gorman, Tricia Vessey, Camille Winbush, Isaach de Bankolé, Richard Portnow, Henry Silva, Gene Ruffini)
IMDb // My Full Review // Leave a Comment

What is the question to which Ghost Dog is the answer? What is the question even about? Urban eccentricity? Hip-hop syncretism? Existential isolation? Samurai mythology? Traumatic compensation? Rationalized homicide? Mafia-genre absurdism? The ordeals of communication? Does the question arrive with a cocked grin, or with the knotted brow of really wanting to know something? Is this joint for real? Okay, that last one I can answer. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is definitely for real, gliding with the smoothness of real craft and coordination, circling with the tranquility of an airborne dove around the mystery of its title character. Sure, the movie's tongue is planted in its cheek, but how far, and about what? Writer-director Jim Jarmusch floats the joke of his main character's wild improbability alongside the parallel joke that Ghost Dog's acquaintances cannot quite accept him as a premise, much less as a person. This refusal that speaks more to the buffoonish narrow-mindedness of several Ghost Dog characters. Meanwhile, the movie stokes but also calms our merry incredulity at the figure Jarmusch has concocted and at his breezy, opaque plan for where he's taking this figment. The atmosphere isn't simply or straightforwardly comic, and in fact veers quite far from that territory, even if the whole project feels like it's build atop a cryptic joke. Jarmusch limns all of this close-to-the-hoodie humor with Ghost Dog's nearly ecclesiastical sobriety, his whispery devotion to an idiosyncratic but gravely intoned creed. Filtered through all of this irony and earnestness is a steady recurrence of close-range violence that makes you recoil from its candor and quickness, even though the violence is virtually never bloody—all silencers and single-shot kills, with bullet holes that look more like punctuation marks than furious flesh wounds. The violence is also quite funny much of the time, and it frequently justifies the overused adjective "balletic."

When you total all this up, Ghost Dog conjures at least thirteen ways of looking at a black man. Although the movie doesn't engage race as a theme in any particularly overt way, its agile stylistics, polychromatic perspective, and strange, supple characterization are even more gratifying because American movies have failed so dismally to be imaginative or curious with regard to black characters. We've met a lot of homeless African-Americans in movies, but rarely has a character's homelessness been packaged as a linchpin of mystical asceticism, volitional to at least some degree, especially given that Ghost Dog has frequent and ready access to top-drawer technology and to lucrative labor, however felonious. Black criminals have almost never been sympathetic in American movies, nor have they been rendered as sensitive, meditative, sui generis, indebted at different moments to Mifune, De Niro, and Belmondo.

One of the film's odd and lovely rapports arises between Ghost Dog and the young, precocious schoolgirl played by Camille Winbush, who reveals that she's carrying around four books in her lunchbox: The Wind in the Willows, The Souls of Black Folk, Night Nurse (she likes the cover), and Frankenstein. It's no stretch ascribing the same cheeky eclecticism to the film itself, manifested in the ways it reads, listens, moves, and thinks. Certainly Forest Whitaker's performance is a quiet wonder of amalgamation, his physique top-heavy but astonishingly limber; his rooftop practice-session with his saber is a thing of Astairean beauty. Whitaker's whole mien is contemplative to the point of total Zen serenity, yet Ghost Dog manages to leap when necessary right into a headspace of spontaneous, murderous marksmanship. Without breaking a sweat or flinching at the outcome, he plots out the methodical steps of a particularly wicked hit involving a basement break-in and a drainpipe. Still, he'd just as soon use his gun-sights to get a better, closer angle on the mad industry of a woodpecker in the wild. If Ghost Dog is at some literal level a profoundly disturbed character, as is suggested by some sepia-toned flashbacks to his origin myth as a Mafia hitman, he is at the same time fascinated with ethics, beholden to beauty, admired around the 'hood if only partially understood, and capable of reacting reflectively to surprises, whether or not he is holding an automatic pistol at the time.

The film, with comparable stoicism and self-assurance, demonstrates how wide-ranging and flexible it is without blustering or back-patting about how many formal languages it's able to speak. Few recent movies have worked so many wonders with the dissolve, whether to condense a clever bit of plot-business about a license-plate switcheroo or to briefly resuscitate a dead character or to instill the percussive, majestic soul of hip-hop-jazz into the abstracted flight of an urban pigeon. The superimpositions and cross-fades approach an enticing, Pillow Book-ish aestheticism without violating the overall milieus of urban poetry and street-level conflict. A simple cut or fade can transport the viewer from the jocular comedy of Ghost Dog and his French-speaking buddy watching a man build an ark on top of his apartment building to the mute, angry despair of Ghost Dog returning to his pigeon hutch and finding his birds all destroyed. RZA's score, one of many musical watersheds that the Academy passed over in Ghost Dog's eligibility year (see also Bamboozled and Dancer in the Dark), serves as the foundation for several new tracks in the low-key, groove-driven song score. Even so, the music is just as beautiful and hypnotic without lyrical embellishment, and it engages in zesty counterpoint with the other interpolated tracks of hip-hop and Afro-Caribbean pop. The camera assumes all sorts of surprising, gratifyingly weird angles, as when it peers through a six-inch strip of clear masking tape that Ghost Dog affixes to a sliding-glass door, to keep it from shattering when he fires a bullet through it, or when it creeps toward his rooftop aviary-cum-temple-cum-haven with a Steadicam mixture of curiosity and unease, evocative of David Lynch.

Beyond these flavorful moments and movements, the photography of Robby Müller spins remarkable variations of beauty, menace, and comic-book exagerration out of its controlled palette of blacks, blues, and whites, with the occasional smear of strawberry red or the odd swath of military green. The whole film is a master-class in nimble creativity both challenged and enlivened by its enigmatic subject and by Jarmusch's commitment to presenting him in such a tricksterish panoply of tones. I recognize that The Godfather or Goodfellas is most people's favorite mob-war movie. By a similar token, most people's favorite samurai movie hails from Japan, without a single crucial scene at an ice-cream truck and without audio contributions from the Wu-Tang Clan or the Sunz of Man. With all due respect to those films, I do relish a curveball. Ghost Dog is the sort of film most people wouldn't expect to work at all, but it's a marvel of grace and engineering, and however you want to cut it, the thing's got soul.

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