The Ghost Writer

>> Sunday, May 02, 2010

Let's just get the ugly part of it out of the way, right away, so that we don't have to mention it again nor can be accused of beating 'round the proverbial bush: Roman Polanski is a fairly awful human being who pleaded guilty to a sex offense in which, according to widely-alleged facts, Polanski got a thirteen-year-old girl drunk and stoned and had sex with her. Whether or not the sex was consensual—the victim testified it wasn't—under California law, the victim was incapable of giving consent so that doesn't matter a damn bit.

That having been said: the man's one helluva filmmaker.

Which brings us to his latest film, The Ghost Writer, the best recent film I've seen this year (The Battle Of Algiers was better—it's also half-a-century old). Ewan MacGregor plays an anonymous writer who is hired to finish ghost writing the memoirs of a disgraced British former Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) after the previous ghost writer died under dubious circumstances; the Ghost (he's never actually named in the film, a nice touch) quickly finds himself in over his head as news breaks that the man whose memoir he's supposed to be writing will be investigated by The Hague for war crimes arising from the extraordinary renditions of suspected terrorists to the CIA for alleged torture. The movie is one of the tightest little thrillers I've seen in a very long, long while, intensely low-key and wickedly effective, and it's a testament to such that it manages to be one of those movies where a fairly obvious twist doesn't ruin anything; that is, the twist is something you can see coming from somewhere about midway through the movie, but there's still a nice bit of tension as you watch MacGregor stumble his way towards the revelation and a certain gleefulness in seeing him finally puzzle through it.

This is the sign of a good suspense movie. In a bad thriller—take weirdly-overrated The Sixth Sense, for instance, figuring things out early makes the remainder an exercise in tedium. If you figure out the twist of Sense in the first fifteen minutes—which isn't the least bit difficult to do—the remainder of the movie consists of Bruce Willis being very boring and Haley Joel Osment being annoyingly overwrought. The Usual Suspects and Psycho, on the other hand, are movies that reward repeat viewings even if you know how everything plays out.

Part of that, of course, is that those movies offer more than just the twist—fine performances, snappy dialogue and visual panache, to mention a few. The Ghost Writer gives us all of those. Polanski gets career performances out of Brosnan and MacGregor, too fine actors who frequently, it's sad to say, have taken roles under directors who have allowed them to phone it in or coast on charisma. And Polanski gets further fine performances from Olivia Williams (as the Prime Minister's wife) and, I'm sort of surprised to say, Kim Cattrall as the PM's personal secretary. The screenplay, by Polanski and Robert Harris (author of the novel the film is based on) has some real wit.

And the direction and cinematography are gorgeous. The bulk of the movie is shot in a palette of ghostly, haunted greys that capture the alienation of and distance surrounding the story's players—and that creates an increasingly and weirdly claustrophobic backdrop as the plot thickens: the Ghost may be in the middle of a wide open space, but he's surrounded and trapped, a hundred million miles from help. When he tentatively begins calling the outside world on his cellphone, it's not like there's anyone around who could help him, and he damn well knows it.

Polanski also brings his usual wry, blackly comic sensibilities to the whole affair. Futility is a theme in The Ghost Writer (wonderfully summed up in a sight gag in which a handyman tries to sweep up a porch in a rising wind, the grass he's trying to dispose of blowing back as soon as he tries to dispose of it), but there's never a sense that the characters' actions are never less than important, however doomed they might be in their several ways. There's a sense, too, that no matter how things will end up, however useless our striving may be, that the world goes rolling along and so we must, too, because what else are we going to do? I hate to call that sensibility “European”--it seems kind of snotty, somehow, but it's not exactly the kind of thing you'd see in a movie made by an American unless the American's name was Terry Gilliam, and Gilliam's been living in Europe for how many decades? (Does he even have his American citizenship anymore, or has he officially ex-patted himself?)

As I was writing this (confession—while this is the Sunday post, I'm writing it over a pretty good smothered flatiron steak and Fat Tire at The Tavern At The Park), a friend responded to one of my tweets about the film to say she wanted to see Ghost but would feel like she was “condoning a child rapist/flight risk with [her] dollars.” Which (and I know I said I wasn't going to come back to this in the first paragraph—oh well) I understand; I think this is probably the reason I didn't see Ghost when it opened several weeks ago and felt a little leery even this morning when I was looking at the weather and thinking a thunderstormy Saturday afternoon might be a perfect time to go see a movie. And if there had been anything else in the world playing that I hadn't already seen, maybe I would have gone to that, instead (if, for instance, Furry Vengeance really was a movie about costume fetishists going on a killing spree, as I suggested it could've been in Saturday's post, I definitely would have been there). And now, having seen Ghost Writer, I sort of regret letting my distaste for Polanski as a person put me off of what really is a decent accomplishment as an artist; while Ghost may not be a movie for the ages, it's certainly better than anything else new I've seen this year by miles, including Scorsese's enjoyable-but-light Shutter Island. And let me again give a nod to the cast, which really is something else in this movie—in some cases, a revelation. It's simply a pretty damn good movie, and it's worth setting aside whatever justified reservations you have about Polanski and taking a look.

Or you can always add it to your rental queue.


Dr. Phil (Physics) Sunday, May 2, 2010 at 10:08:00 PM EDT  

I'll wait til he's in jail.

Dr. Phil

breefie -- underpants made of meat

Nathan Monday, May 3, 2010 at 8:26:00 PM EDT  

I'm kinda with Dr. Phil on this one.

Nathan Tuesday, May 4, 2010 at 8:15:00 AM EDT  

I'll also admit that I've considered (and rejecting) writing about Polanski more than a few times...I'm conflicted. My personal point of view, being the question of would I turn down working with/for him? (It's more or less a moot point since he's not likely to be making a picture in the U.S. anytime soon).

But it's a real question. I'm not sure I'd work for Mel Gibson even though he made some of my favorite movies. I know I'd be conflicted about taking a Woody Allen movie (and it's not like she was ever his daughter before he married her...but he does hold a patent on his own brand of "Ewwwww, that's just so wrong".

I'm also not sure where I draw the line...I despise some actors' politics; is that a reason to avoid anything that might enrich them? some of their politics drift into absolutely hateful; is that the line?

It's much easier with Polanski. I don't think the ability to avoid a Judge's sentence for 30 years invokes any kind of statute of limitations for me...any more than a war criminal finding haven in some podunk that won't extradite him does.

Eric Tuesday, May 4, 2010 at 12:08:00 PM EDT  

Believe me, I understand the conflict, and can't really argue with it. In fact, it's a little frustrating--if Polanski was as bad an artist as he is a human being, it'd be pretty easy to skip his work.

Indeed, Woody Allen and Mel Gibson have made things easier, I'm afraid, by not releasing any movies I particularly cared to see at all since their problems surfaced. Yet even there, I feel a certain inevitable twinge of discomfort at owning copies of Sleeper, Bananas and Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex* (*But were afraid to ask); and I've held off on picking up Mad Max and The Road Warrior because as much as I adore those movies... damn Mel Gibson to hell.

If you can overcome your discomfort or give yourself some sort of pass like going to a free screening (or maybe downloading a pirated torrent, he didn't really suggest, did he?*), The Ghost Writer is a pretty damn good little movie. If you can't and won't, though, I don't blame you a bit for giving it a pass. I almost did, myself.

*Don't do it, because that would be WRONG. Because obtaining a copy of a movie you'd refuse to pay to see is STEALING. Somehow.

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