The Best Movie Critic + thriller

The Ghost Writer

Nearly every review I've read of Roman Polanski's newest, The Ghost Writer, either starts with a sort of disclaimer like, “I'm going to review the movie itself, not Polanski the person,” or otherwise implicitly subscribes to that mantra, willfully avoiding Polanski's recent headline-grabbers in favor of a 'pure' reading of 'the film itself.'

I really don't understand how these critics can sit through Ghost Writer and block out Polanski's personal life, not because I think they're being morally reckless in doing so, but because nearly every character in the movie serves as a proxy for Polanski and the circumstances that have shaped his later life in at least one scene in the movie. Need some more substantial evidence?

-A character allegedly commits a crime which he will be arrested for if he returns to his home country. Instead, his plan is to only travel in and to countries that do not recognize his activity as criminal.
-A character is confronted with the possibility of having sex with someone he seriously should not have sex with. He goes into the bathroom to clear his head, and literally looks into the camera and says, “This is a bad idea” before going back and sleeping with her.
-A character loses his passport, and we the audience internalize his overwhelming claustrophobia at the thought of not being able to leave the county (the point being that claustrophobic fear of an entire country isn't exactly a common cinematic trope).

Not exactly subtle, eh? I don't know if this will ruin the experience for more observant or in-the-know viewers. I don't have any answers as to whether a viewer has a moral obligation to be outraged at Polanski rubbing our faces in his questionable (at best) history and choices. What I know is that critics are consciously forcing themselves to 'not see' these correlations between the fictional movie and Polanski's life, and that is misleading and irresponsible. Like it or not, the subtext is there. Shame on Polanski for including these allusions in his movie? I don't know. Shame on critics for ignoring them? Certainly.

Setting all that aside for a moment, however, Polanski is wildly successful in imbuing his political thriller with creeping dread and claustrophobia, something that can't be easy when your dramatis personae are former Prime Ministers, cabinet members, political aids, and writers for big-time publishing firms. Polanski soaks The Ghost Writer in mysterious atmosphere, making it feels like some long-lost relative of The Wicker Man. In fact, those two movies are close enough in tone and progression that they would make a fascinating double feature. The plot follows a writer (Ewan McGregor) commissioned to complete work on the autobiography of the former British PM (Pierce Brosnan, playing what is at first a thinly veiled Tony Blair, with some notable divergences later on). He is replacing the recently (mysteriously) deceased former ghostwriter, and the circumstances surrounding the latter's death will lead our protagonist down the proverbial political thriller rabbit hole. The ex-PM is holed up in a chic, 'modern' (read: gray, sterile, foreboding) private compound on a 'quaint' (read: isolated, overcast, creepy) island off the coast of Massachusetts. The Ghost Writer's overwhelming atmosphere is one of its greatest triumphs. One would think that nosy CNN reporters and the constant presence of peacenik protestors would diffuse any sense of dread, but this is far from the case. These characters' lives are ludicrously public, yet they remain isolated and haunted, full of empty spaces and quiet paranoia.

I have a total crush on contemporary movies that have a total crush on contemporary technology. The Ghost Writer is intrusively brimming with important plot points that hinge on the use of wifi, Google, and GPS mapping. These instances will date Ghost Writer, but wonderfully, like how dated a Michael Powell movie feels when bragging about the gung-ho good-old-boy bravado and courage of the British military circa WWII in his movies. That might be a poor or obscure example. Sorry. Suffice to say, there is a good and bad way to date your movie with current cultural artifacts. I couldn't describe what the right and wrong way consist of, but I know intuitively that Polanski did it the right way here.

The acting is great across the board. This is the sort of movie where one and two scene bit parts for talented and memorable character actors crop up all over the place. Tom Wilkinson is fantastic, as usual, as a professor whose identity and character shifts significance several times over the course of the movie, though he is only in maybe five minutes of the total running time. Kim Cattrall manages to shed her Samantha from Sex in the City persona almost completely; the British accent helps. James Belushi is nearly unrecognizable in an early and brief role. And I just realized that the creepy but friendly old islander that steals the show from McGregor in one pivotal scene was freaking Eli Wallach ('the Ugly' from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). Wow. He's still got it.

An admittedly obvious metaphor crops up early in the movie: The compound groundskeeper attempts to sweep up fallen branches off the porch, but the wind just keeps blowing more onto the porch and blowing away the branches he's already gathered. Yes, this is a pretty heavy handed harbinger of the futility of attempting to prevent the terrible things to come in the movie itself, but – whether intended or not – it is also an apt representation of the futility of trying to determine a morally correct way to watch and enjoy Polanski's movies. There will never be a morally correct defense to watching and enjoying Polanski's movies yet also acknowledging the fact that he drugged and raped an underage girl. Just as there will never be a morally congruent way for me to love rappers Ghostface Killer or Clipse, but disapprove of drug dealing and machismo culture. Or love the music of Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo, but not approve of the fact that he was a brutal murderer. We can keep trying to gather up the mess in a way that makes sense, but it is a futile effort.

I do know that I love Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, The Fearless Vampire Killers, and Ghost Writer. I know that I fundamentally and emphatically hate rape and child abuse. I know that these movies will live longer than Polanski the person, and that people will continue to suss out the 'correct' relationship between art and the artist for many, many years to come. I do not know the correct solution to these irreconcilable issues. In the meantime, suffice to say that if Ghost Writer's director credit did not read 'Roman Polanski,' I would recommend it without hesitation as a top-rate, timely, and very effective political thriller.

Magic Moment: The final scene, and more specifically, the masterful final shot. I can't say any more. My lips are sealed.

-Ben

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