Examining any piece of art (whatever that actually constitutes) requires the interpreter to ape some sort of perspective or stance. Looking at a film through the guise of Stanley Fish’s Reader-Response criticism allows a specific view to be revealed, but then could simultaneously leave a bevy of ideas unexplored if not immediately conjured in the critic’s mind. For that reason, as well as a few others, understanding Jim Jarmcusch’s Ghost Dog, a 1999 gangster/crime film, is a bit confusing.
The concept of cultures meeting in various odd and surprising settings has long been something Jarmusch has sought to explore. Reaching back to his first feature, Permanent Vacation (1980), its main character, Allie, encounters a distressed Hispanic woman screaming on her porch. The two can’t communicate so he moves on. The same sort of cultural meetings aren’t reveled here, but there is a mob boss who really likes Public Enemy. And while that might be initially surprising, it’s certain that Chuck D. and Flava Flav like gangster movies.
Cultural reciprocity is basically what this film seeks to explore.
Forest Whitaker’s Ghost Dog character seldom speaks, spends most of his time either reading or jacking cars for jobs which entail killing or talking with his best friend, an ice cream truck driver who only speaks French. The contract killer appears to be well known in his neighborhood and even respected by the various gangster types milling around attired in both red and blue (as a side, The Wire’s Marlo is one of those gangsters).
Ghost Dog then is a confluence of things: samurai, gangster hit man and average neighborhood guy. It’s in the meeting place of these ideas that the film takes on some semblance of cultural criticism. Beholden to the mob underling who saved his life, Ghost Dog, as per Samurai code, devotes his life to repaying the debt he perceives to be owed. The untraceable killings, which are tied to each culture Whitaker’s character touches, eventually offer up a surprising witness.
A cartoon watching mob boss’ daughter has apparently been seeing one of the gang’s underlings and Ghost Dog is called in to rectify the situation. Unfortunately for all involved, the daughter’s hanging around when the killing goes down, which begins the film's main point of contention. The mob now seeks to kill its killer for this transgression – real or imagined. After all, Ghost Dog was simply doing his job.
Whatever the case, the remainder of the film concerns itself with the title character seeking a way to protect himself while retaining his allegiance to the mob guy who saved his life. The two concepts don’t jive and as the film progresses, it becomes more and more apparent that there’s going to be a final showdown. Of course, seeing as Dead Man was the film preceding this, the left over Western conception of a finale shouldn’t be too shocking. It’s odd, though, that Jarmusch choose to end the film on such a downer. The only thing redeeming everyone is a book being passed along. Whether it’ll be read or not is another story, though.