Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Ghost Writer (Movie Review)

Roman Polanski's first feature, Knife in the Water, was released in the United States seven months after The Birds, arguably Alfred Hitchcock's last important film (though strong arguments for Marnie, Frenzy, and Family Plot can be and have been made).  Polanski followed his debut with an impressive array of psychological and vaguely political thrillers:  Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, and The Tenant.  Then scandal and the mess that was American film-making in the 1980s sidelined his career until 2002's Oscar-winning The Pianist.  If Hitchcock was the master of suspense, Polanski is surely the master of creeping paranoia--his best films feature protagonists in a strange, new environment, surrounded by often mere suggestions of menace.  I would go further and name Polanski as Hitchcock's successor as the master of suspense in film.

The Ghost Writer may be Polanski's best film since Chinatown.  It is a crisp, chilled political thriller involving state secrets, torture, double-crosses, and espionage--but this is no 24 or Jason Bourne international adventure.  Almost 75% of this film is contained in the (literal) glass house a former British Prime Minister (played with offhanded amorality by Pierce Brosnan) keeps on a windswept coast in the United States, where he writes his memoirs and defends himself against charges of crimes against humanity.  The protagonist of the story, though, is the ghost writer, hired to revise a typescript of questionable value to its would-be publishers.  Ewan McGregor plays the writer, unfamiliar with the personal and political terrain he's trespassing on.  He may be gaining new insights into the subject of the memoir, he may be being played, or he may be in over his head, misinterpreting decades-old political and marital cues and signals.

The performances in this film are the best (or among the best) of the actors' careers.  In key supporting roles, Kim Cattrall (Sex and the City) and Olivia Williams (Rushmore, The Sixth Sense) are revelatory of sophisticated nuances that have not been apparent in their previous roles.  Williams is especially surprising as the PM's blunt, sharp-tongued wife.  Veteran actor Eli Wallach has a small cameo that is riveting--a lesson in the fact that the "method" in acting never grows stale.  McGregor and Brosnan, too, are riveting as they play cat and mouse in a game where the cat has many mouselike qualities and vice versa.

It's difficult to make good movies about the writing process--or the unearthing of hidden meanings of other people's words.  Even moderately successful films of this sort--such as All the President's Men and The Shining--seldom succeed on the level that The Ghost Writer does.  Where other directors have to manufacture an air of impending menace, it helps that Polanski simply sees the world as inherently menacing and conniving--hardly a wonder given the man's life story.  That the victim is possibly as culpable and involved as his tormentors is another point that Polanski is able to make without seeming to force it.

There's hardly any overt violence in this movie--somebody has died, or committed suicide, somebody else has fallen (by accident?) and is in a coma.  Most of the traumatizing events of the story (e.g., the torture of detainees in the war on terror) occur off-screen, and yet we feel the creeping panic as the writer's discoveries draw us closer to an awareness that the causes of these horrors may be very near ... and may, in fact, be likable fellows--the sort you wouldn't mind having a drink with.

For me the true test of a suspense thriller is whether the sense of dread lingers after the film is over.  It's been sixteen hours since I watched the closing credits of The Ghost Writer, and I still feel like someone is watching me through the windows and listening to me through the walls.  If my phone were to ring this second, I would jump right out of my seat.

1 comment:

  1. Joe,

    I liked your whole approach to this review, planting the concept of Hitchcock and Polanski as contemporaries, a connection I would never have made, is brilliant. Hitchcock for me was an old man, dead long before I had a concept of him and my knowledge of Polanski focuses on his current predicament as a pederast living in a luxurious Swiss prison that he gets to make the mortgage payment on every month thanks to the LA County DA. Yet both have made films that had profound effects on me, Rebecca and China Town.

    You have convinced me that this is a worthwhile movie, despite the fact that Pierce Brosnan is involved. I’m in a typing mood, so it off to another of your prolific blogs that also hold my interest



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