In Jersey City, Ghost Dog, (Forrest Whitaker) an African American hit man, follows “Hagakure: The Way of the Samurai.” He is retainer to Louie, (John Turmey) a Mafioso who follows Omertà, (the mafia code of silence) a surprisingly similar code for living. Jim Jarmusch directs and I use the word ‘directs’ instead of director because it describes his approach to film where little is complicated or obscure. When someone is killed in a Jim Jarmusch film you don’t expect they will turn up again in another movie-ever. After all, they are dead. I don’t know how he does it but death in Jarmusch is final. Perhaps because the killers are moving on even before the bodies hit the ground. For example, in one scene Louie and another Mafioso are stopped by a cop. She asked for ID. The driver shoots her. Louie says in surprise, You shot a woman! To which his partner says, You’re a male chauvinist! as they pull away.
When I look at Forest Whitaker’s face I wonder if those eyes can see at all or if they have something more than sight, if they are doing something more than seeing. The pupils float in an eerily liquid way, like candles on water. You learn nothing from his eyes, not even if he is paying attention or not (what is he looking at?). Another part of his body must become active for his intentions to be revealed. He is often very still, holding on to the moment. That is why he is perfect for this movie.
Ghost Dog passes through the streets as though he is unnoticed or invisible. He has chosen a narrow path to inhabit in his life. The life of the Samurai is both a path of comfort and one of danger. The code tells them to consider the world a dream from which he can awake. Each moment is something to pursue, for to understand a given moment ends the need to go on. Louie’s code tells him to trust no one. To not help a government agency or ask for their help. He must mind his own business only and if wronged he must right the wrong without help. Louie’s is a less solitary path than Ghost Dog’s he at least can call on his family in extreme cases. This can cut both ways, in really extreme cases, he is expected to sacrifice himself to the code. Either of them could write a Guide for the Modern Anarchist or How to Form a More Perfect Tea Party.
Two seasoned actors admirably act out the fate of two ancient cultures trying to survive in a modern urban setting. Jarmusch gets a good laugh in here or there but mostly this is an inevitable downward spiral for two former giants who think the past will save them when they are only trapped in their own salvation. Did I mention it’s fun to watch?