Tag Archives: Forest Whitaker

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

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.

Out of the Furnace (2013)

In their illustrated novel Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco talk about “economic sacrifice zones.” Camden, New Jersey, the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, McDowell County, West Virginia are pockets of poverty and despair so isolated and so cut off from the American mainstream they might as well be somewhere in the Third World. Out of the Furnace, Scott Cooper’s film staring Christian Bale as a Western Pennsylvania steel worker, is a deeply flawed attempt to make a film about this side of the United States.

In spite of some excellent performances by a cast of A-list Hollywood actors, Woody Harrelson, Bale, Sam Shepherd, Willem Defoe, and Casey Affleck, Out of the Furnace is a terrible movie. It’s often laughably anachronistic. It’s dull. It’s violent without having any clear idea about how it feels about the violence it portrays. The excellent Winter’s Bone, which was made for one-tenth the cost, 2 million dollars as opposed to Out of the Furnace’s 20 million dollars, showed us back in 2010 that you could indeed make a successful film about an “economic sacrifice zone.” So what went wrong?

I think Out of the Furnace might have failed precisely because it had an A-list cast and a 20 million dollar budget. Big stars and big budgets restrict a director’s freedom as much as they enable him to make a good film. Here’s what I think happened. While you do of course have every right to make a film about an “economic sacrifice zone,” you don’t have a right to investors, to funding. People won’t put up money for a film they don’t think will make money. Winter’s Bone, which starred Jennifer Lawrence when she was still a relative unknown, slipped through the cracks. It was a low-budget movie with a future mega-star. The Wire is a TV show. But Out of the Furnace, as a relatively big budget, relatively mainstream film had to follow certain conventions.

So how does poverty “make it through the censors,” which, in the United States? It’s rare, of course, for a mainstream film to feature poor, unattractive people. But there are certain formats you can work in if you’re interested in making a film about an economic sacrifice zone. You can make a crime drama. Police procedurals and detective shows are where you see the poor on TV.  You might, of course, argue that for most people people in America, cops are omnipresent. You get stopped and frisked on the way to work. You come home and watch the police respond to the domestic disturbance next door. But you’re not going to show an A-list Hollywood actor getting stopped and frisked or waiting in line for a payday loan at the check cashing store. So you need to dramatize poverty indirectly, circle around it, suggest rather than show outright, leave some room for the central protagonist to become a “hero.”

Out of the Furnace squares the circle by way of a revenge drama. It opens at a drive in. Note above what I said about “anachronistic.” We’re never told where the drive-in is located but we see Woody Harrelson as Harlan DeGroat, who we later learn is one of the Ramapo Valley Indians of Bergen Country, New Jersey, terrorizing his girlfriend. When a man in the next car tries to stop it, DeGroat savagely beats him in the parking-lot. This is not a man, we’re shown, who we really want to run into in a dark alley. Bergen County New Jersey, of course, is by no definition an “economic sacrifice zone,” but the hills above Mahwah, where the Ramapo Mountain Indians live, is an isolated, often misunderstood place. So there you have it. Poverty and isolation is embodied by one irrational, violent criminal. That he’s portrayed by a big star also means he has to be a seriously badass violent, irrational criminal, not just an idiot who shoots his mother for her welfare check or knocks over a convenience store.

The movie then shifts to North Braddock, a decayed industrial city just outside of Pittsburgh, not, strictly speaking, an economic sacrifice zone either, but still run down, a place that has seen better days. We meet Russell Baze, Bale, who works in a local steel mill as a welder. The aesthetics of North Braddock appear to have been lifted whole cloth right out of the Deer Hunter. There is in fact still an operational steel mill in North Braddock, but I doubt it’s a big part of the local economy anymore. I’m not exactly sure what North Braddock looks like these days, but this North Braddock appears to be stuck in a 1970s time warp. Restored muscle cars, dark, grimy working class bars, old men dying next to plastic statutes of the Virgin Mary, there are no desktop computers, no Starbucks, no big box stores or fast food places. A mobile phone will play a key role in the plot, but this is my father’s Western Pennsylvania, not mine. There is some good cinematography in Out of the Furnace. A road trip Russell Baze takes to Mahwah, New Jersey — portrayed by Independence Township Pennsylvania — is simultaneously beautiful and menacing. But, for the most part, Scott Cooper seems to be “sampling” from the Deer Hunter because he’s unsure of how to shoot the current day suburbs of Pittsburgh. Deborah Granik, in Winters Bone, by contrast, not only shows us the authentic Ozark “economic sacrifice zone” of Arkansas and Missouri, she shows so much of it it almost starts to look like a documentary.

We also meet Russell Baze’s younger brother Rodney, an Iraq War veteran who, since he has trouble settling down and getting a job, has gotten mixed up with some local gangsters, the bare-knuckled fight scene, and, ultimately, Harlan DeGroat. Why a local gangster and drug dealer in northern New Jersey is mixed up in a similar scene all the way out in Western Pennsylvania is never quite explained. In spite of Russell’s efforts to save his brother, efforts that include signing over his entire paycheck to pay his debt, Rodney agrees to participate in a bare-knuckled match out in New Jersey, where, in exchange for “taking a dive,” DeGroat agrees to forgive him and John Petty, Defoe, the money they owe. Petty and Rodney drive out to New Jersey. Rodney takes the dive as agreed, but, for some reason never explained, Harlan DeGroat murders them both.

The murder staged in Out of the Furnace, and the apparently lack of motivation, has, in the real world, led to some members of the Ramapo Mountain tribe to bring a law suit against Scott Cooper and the producers of Out of the Furnace. Since DeGroat is a common name among the Ramapo Mountain people and since Harrelson’s character is so irredeemably vicious, they’ve accused the film of being nothing less than a “hate crime.” It is indeed a little baffling as to why Cooper would have an isolated little rural slum in New Jersey play such a large role in a film about Western Pennsylvania but I suspect it has something to do with wanting to address racial tensions in Braddock — which is now 60 percent black — without having to deal with any fallout. Although Cooper casts two fine black actors, Forest Whitaker and Zoe Saldana, in insignificant roles, the racial “other” is played by the white, Anglo Saxon Woody Harrelson as a Ramapo Mountain “Indian.” Cooper jumped out of the frying pan and landed right in the fire.

In any event, while in Winter’s Bone, Jennifer Lawrence’s Uncle Teardrop and an associated family of meth cookers embody the poverty, desperation and violence of an “economic sacrifice zone,” in Out of the Furnace, Harrelson does it all by himself. It doesn’t work. While Harrelson certainly knows how to play a violent, depraved criminal, it comes off more like a star turn than anything that speaks to the society of either the Ramapo Mountain People or of Western Pennsylvania. Russell’s revenge, where Bale lures Harrelson back to Braddock on the pretext of collecting a debt, is as implausible as it is dramatically unconvincing. A scary crime lord like DeGroat didn’t have lackeys willing to drive out and collect the money? Nobody’s ever heard of PayPal or money orders? What’s more, it makes no sense that a welder would suddenly transform himself into a badass killing machine. Knowing how to fire a hunting rifle never made anybody Dirty Harry. It would have, in fact, made a lot more sense to have had Rodney, as an Iraq War Vet, avenge Russell, his hard working civilian brother. Surely they teach people how to kill in the army, but, once again, the economics of the film override its dramatic logic. Christian Bale is a bigger star than Casey Affleck, so he had to play the hero.

Indeed, Russell’s transformation into an avenger contrasts poorly with Jennifer Lawrence’s Rhea Dolly. Winter’s Bone is dramatically effective precisely because Rhea has to overcome her terror, precisely because she’s a 17-year-old girl without protection, stuck in an economic sacrifice zone where she and her younger brother and sister are about to lose their house. Winter’s Bone brings us into that economic sacrifice zone because it brings us into the mind of a young woman who understands what it means, but doesn’t fully understand what it means. The film is a learning process. Out of the Furnace, by contrast, is just another macho action flick. It’s not the worst movie ever made, but it’s a criminal waste of talent.

Forget about Out of the Furnace. Watch Winter’s Bone. Read Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. Dig your out your old VHS copy of the Deer Hunter, and, if you’re still in the mood, take a drive up to the Ramapo Mountains. I’m 100% sure you won’t get killed.