Jim Jarmusch’s seventh feature length film, an homage to Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic Le Samouraï, is a beautifully filmed meditation on race and social isolation. Quiet, nuanced, aesthetically rich, it’s a work of art that demands to be seen multiple times, an object to be contemplated from a variety of different angles as though it were a painting or a piece of sculpture. A critique after only one viewing will be limited, but a comparison to Melville’s great original is probably the best place to start.
Forest Whitaker, who takes over for Alain Delon, plays “Ghost Dog,” who takes over for Jeff Costello as the contract killer who follows the Code of Bushido. Where Delon is slim, elegant, ghostlike, Whitaker is thick, stocky, and substantial. But their characters have two things in common, a quiet, self-possessed intelligence, and a love of birds. Costello lives in a spare, white, minimalist apartment in Paris with a single bird in a cage, and a case full of mineral water. Ghost Dog lives on a roof in Jersey City with dozens of pigeons, a hidden tool box full of guns, and a collection of books. They seem too noble for their chosen work, murder for hire for a local crime boss, but they both carry their assignments with a dedicated professionalism so intently focused on the details of the process that it almost transcends the finished product. Is it possible to admire a professional killer because he looks so good while he’s doing the job?
Among the maxims on Lord Naoshige’s wall, there was this one,” Ghost Dog says, quoting a Master Ittei. “Matters of great concern should be treated lightly. Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.”
Jeff Costello and Ghost Dog both meet their end when a small, seemingly insignificant detail in a carefully planned assassination goes wrong. For Jeff Costello, it’s Valérie, a black singer and piano player who witnesses him shoot a night club owner, her boss. For Ghost Dog, it’s Louise Vargo, the daughter of a mob boss. While we don’t know why Jeff Costello had been assigned to kill Valérie’s boss, we do know why Ghost Dog is assigned to kill Handsome Frank, a “made man” who’s sleeping with Louise. Ray Vargo, her father, objects to their relationship. He contacts Louie, a local mobster Ghost Dog considers his benefactor — Louie had saved Ghost Dog’s life years before — who, in turn, contacts Ghost Dog. Their method is as ingenious as it is low tech, notes tied to the legs of one of Ghost Dog’s many carrier pigeons, difficult to trace and foolproof. But then something goes wrong. Louise, who was supposed to have been out of town, is in the room when Ghost Dog comes through the door and kills Handsome Frank with one clean shot to the head. Vargo, her father, now decides that killing a made man was so dangerous that they have to eliminate his paid assassin, and orders Louie, on pain of his own assassination, to hunt down Ghost dog and have him killed.
Probably the biggest different between Le Samouraï and Ghost Dog is the nature of the hero’s antagonist. Jeff Costello faces a genuine menace, a sophisticated police dragnet as methodical and professional as he is. Ghost Dog, on the other hand, is never in any real danger. Vargo, Louie, and their fellow mobsters are really just buffoons. Jeff Costello escapes the police chase only because Valerie, who he’s later told to murder to eliminate he as a potential witness, covers for him. Le Samourai poses an almost unbearable moral dilemma. Does Jeff Costello shoot his benefactor and live? Or does he stay true to his code of chivalry and die? Melville resolves Le Samourai’s plot with such a clean elegance that, while the film justifies repeated viewings, we leave satisfied we know what was in Costello’s mind. We never see it coming. Yet after it’s all over, we realize nothing could have possibly been any different.
Jim Jarmusch has another agenda altogether. Ghost Dog’s benefactor is not a beautiful young black woman who’s willing to risk her life to see him go free. On the contrary, Louie is an ugly, sleazy middle-aged crime boss who’s mainly out for himself. Why is Ghost Dog so loyal? We never get a satisfactory answer. Jarmusch does not set up a narrative that gives him a choice between his life or honor. After he kills a group of men who threaten Louie, he could easily escape, but he chooses not to. He not only allows Louie to kill him. He traps him into it. Is Ghost Dog, like Jarmusch’s earlier hero William Blake, already dead, a ghost lingering between life and death while his consciousness catches up to what happened to his body? Or does he simply have a death wish?
Louise Vargo witnesses the death of her lover Handsome Frank with such a lack of affect that she initially seems either catatonic or just retarded. But the book she’s reading, Rashamon, the title, the basis for Akira Kurosawa’s famous film about how individual perception skews narrative, gives us a possible hint. Why does a clearly superior black “samurai” continue to serve a clearly inferior white mobster? Ghost Dog believes he owes Louie his continued loyalty because he also believes Louie saved him as a child. In a flashback, Ghost Dog is being kicked to death by a gang of thugs. Louie comes along, shoots their leader, and saves Ghost Dog’s life. In Louie’s flashback, however, he only shot the man beating Ghost Dog to save his own life. Ghost Dog’s attacker pulled a gun and he beat him to the draw.
This, it seems, is Jim Jarmuch’s statement on race. Why do black men give their loyalty to white men when they don’t really owe them anything? Indeed, while both Jeff Costello and Ghost Dog are loners, Ghost Dog has one friend, a Haitian ice cream truck driver who speaks no English. Ghost Dog speaks no French, and yet both men share a wordless fellowship, a silent understanding that comes from their both being black men in the United States, a bond that transcends language.
After Ghost Dog makes a second friend, a nine year old black girl who loves to read, he gives her Louise Vargo’s copy of Rashamon. Read it and tell me what you think, he says, first to the little girl and then, just before he dies, to Louie. Clearly Jarmusch considers Rashamon key to understanding Ghost Dog.
While the story, which Jarmusch is quite obviously telling us to read, is not identical to the film, and while a reading would probably deepen Ghost Dog even more, I keep coming back to Kurosawa’s famous meditation on the unreliable narrator. How does individual perception affect our understanding of an experience recollected? The 1990s, after all, gave us the OJ Trial, the split screen that showed blacks celebrating and whites disconsolate after OJ was declared “not guilty.” I watched Ghost Dog from the point of view of a white man, a fan of Jean-Pierre Melville, and the larger oeuvre of Jim Jarmusch himself. How would a black movie goer see the same film?
Jim Jarmusch is not a mainstream Hollywood director. On the contrary, he started off as a working musician, immersed in the world of Jazz and alternative music, an environment far and away more multicultural and multiracial than lily white Hollywood. From the Screaming Jay Hawkins song that almost becomes a leading character in Stranger than Paradise to Screaming Jay Hawkins himself in Mystery Train to Tilda Swinton’s eerie resemblance to David Bowie’s Thin White Duke in Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch has always been obsessed with race, and the ability, or lack of ability of blacks and whites to understand one another. Anybody, black or white, knows why Jeff Costello dies in Le Samouraï. But why does Ghost Dog let Louie kill him? Am I, like Dead Man’s Nobody, who makes a brief cameo in Ghost Dog, says: “a stupid white man?” Would it make more sense to a black film goer than to me? Or does Ghost Dog take the mystery to his grave? Or does it really matter? Perhaps I’m trying to impose Jean-Pierre Melville’s literary sensibility onto Jim Jarmusch’s visual and aural sensibility. Why even try to make sense of a movie that, like a painting, invites contemplation more than it does explanation?
Indeed, how Jim Jarmusch managed to transform the industrial neighborhood around Journal Square into something as beautiful as the Tangiers of Only Lovers Left Alive remains another mystery.