Friday, March 5, 2010
Late winter is supposed to be a cinematic graveyard, littered with tossed off B-horrors and low-wattage romantic comedies, but this season brings us two smart, strikingly similar auteur-driven thrillers shining like beacons through the fog. Like Shutter Island, Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer opens with a centered ferry slowly approaching us through the haze off Massachusetts, but where Shutter Island feels like a Scorsese-approved Hitchcock pastiche, The Ghost Writer is Polanski through and through.
On board that ferry is an empty car, gloomily portending the death of its owner, the original ghost writer for former British Prime Minister Adam Lang. Cue Ewan McGregor, who plays the new ghost and quickly winds up tangled in a web of relationships and lies when mysterious scandal breaks out. And there’s still that suspicious death of the original ghost writer nagging him…
Beginning with an overcast afternoon and diving past turbulent sunsets deep into night, Roman Polanski is a master of Kafkaesque expressionism. He pits his hero against a sea of scowls, odd characters, and an inescapable sense of paranoia in a darkening world where everything’s just a little bit off. The Ghost Writer also features all of Polanski’s trademark themes, from power and dominance to, as you may guess from the title, identity. In fact, this is a film largely about how to reconcile our actions with the stories we tell ourselves. The Ghost Writer, in short, nestles comfortably among Polanski’s oeuvre, recalling The Tenant and Death and the Maiden and even quoting an image or two from Cul-de-Sac.
And like Shutter Island, The Ghost Writer is a passionate, desperate cry for humanitarianism. As you know, Tony Blair analogue Adam Lang has some topical secrets about his time in office. The Ghost Writer is a call for accountability, a national moral reckoning. When asked by his agent if he voted for the ex-minister, our hero responds, “Adam Lang? Of course I did. Everyone voted for him.” In a democracy, we’re all culpable, and The Ghost Writer borrows from scandals personal (think Ted Kennedy), democratic (think Richard Nixon), and humanitarian (think George W. Bush) to confront us with the truth about ourselves. Let me make one thing perfectly clear: The Ghost Writer is the defining political thriller for the "War on Terror," one that refuses to let us off the hook.
Boasting a gut-punch of an ending and a uniformly stellar cast, including Pierce Brosnan as Lang, Olivia Williams as his wife, and the always welcome Tom Wilkinson, The Ghost Writer is thoroughly brilliant on every front. Take its ever-looming architecture, for instance: the modernist labyrinth of Lang’s beachside estate, the classical colonial mansion nearby, etc. Like Shutter Island, The Ghost Writer is the product of a consummate auteur animating an endlessly entertaining pulp story with heart, soul, and brains. But there’s one final point of comparison: Scorsese might say cinema’s a delusion, and Polanski's film is certainly all in his head. No one in power, I bet he'd agree, would have the fortitude to call out war crimes by name.