February 3rd, 2007
Directed by Jim Jarmusch (Down by Law, Dead Man, Broken Flowers) and starring Forest Whitaker (The Crying Game, The Last King of Scotland), this is a strange, mesmerizing masterpiece.
Ghost Dog (Whitaker) lives on a rooftop in New Jersey with a coop of pigeons. He works as a contract killer for a mid-level Mafia gangster and follows the way of the Samurai warriors of Japan.
Aside from his pigeons, Ghost Dog has two friends: an ice-cream man who only speaks French, and a little girl who reads books. In a funny ongoing joke we know from the subtitles that Ghost Dog and the ice-cream man almost always understand each other, although neither speaks the other’s language. (They also communicate by way of a game of chess.)
Ghost Dog is associated with two animals: a brown dog, and bears.
Whitaker is brilliant in this film. Large, gentle and shambling (like a bear), he is also believable as a highly refined killing machine, motivated only by the honour of the samurai.
Although I’ve seen this movie at least three times and it is one of my favourites, I find that I can’t really figure it all out. I don’t know what the dog symbolizes, or the bears, apart from representing Ghost Dog himself. Maybe the dog is death, but when Ghost Dog tells it to take off and quit staring at him, it leaves immediately. So I give up.
Some scenes are puzzling, as when Ghost Dog brutally avenges the killing of a bear. It goes too far and is out of character. And in one of Ghost Dog’s clever assassinations, he enters the basement of a house, cuts the drain pipe, and turns off the water. Somehow he knows that when his prey can’t brush his teeth he will peer down the drain pipe so he can be shot in the eye with a laser-guided rifle bullet. This strikes me as an unlikely assumption.
One subtle bear-sighting occurs when the little girl who reads books has bears on her pajamas. A cute touch, but what does it mean? Will she grow up to be a killer like Ghost Dog? I don’t think so.
Anyway, it doesn’t matter to me. I like this film for Whitaker’s performance, for the bumbling Mafia gangsters who can’t pay their rent, for the sweetness of Ghost Dog’s relationships with the ice-cream man and the little girl, for the stylish killings and the pulsing music, and for the strangely hypnotic mood of the thing. It makes me feel good to watch this movie once a year or so.