“The Ghost Writer” combines contemporary political intrigue with the two things Polanski does best: mysterious thriller, and the utter darkness that humanity is capable of. It begins with a struggling British writer (Ewan McGregor). He’s never given a name, he’s simply referred to as “The Ghost.” It’s fitting, as his character seems more like a spirit than an actual human beings to the rest of the characters.
Anyway, McGregor’s writer accepts a high paying job to be a ghost writer on the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). Lang is forced to live in the United States after being convicted of war crimes for ordering the torture of several terror suspects. The Ghost is brought in after Lang’s previous ghost writer is found dead on the beach. As The Ghost finds out more about Lang’s strange life and personality, he unravels a shocking and dangerous mystery.
“The Ghost Writer” comes out at the heals of another fascinating psychological thriller from a legendary director: “Shutter Island.” “The Ghost Writer,” however, is one that exists much more in reality. Yet, they both deal with characters we would’ve seen in films by these directors during their finest hours. The Ghost is the typical Polanski lead: he is the good guy who tries to do good in a world filled with wrong. However, his good intentions always go awry.
Polanski is the rare director who fully incorporates both his life experience and world views into his work. Over 40 years on, and he is still capable of producing some of the darkest visions that will ever hit your local cinema.
“The Ghost Writer” is raised up by a trifecta of brilliant male leads. McGregor not only plays The Ghost, but he transforms himself into a true ghost of a man. He never seems content with his situation as he quite simply floats through life. He always contains the restless, red-eyed look of a disheveled insomniac.
Meanwhile, two of the films character whom can be classified as villains fit into the Polanski category of the “genial villain”: that bad guy who hides their evil under a mask of false kindness. In just a few scenes, Brosnan stole the show and totally erased his Bond image. You may be tricked by his humor and good personality, but he never lets you forget why he’s on trial in the first place.
The other scene stealer is the always dependable Tom Wilkinson. He also has a talent for obscuring what may be bad intentions. The scenes in which The Ghost converses with Lang and Paul Emmett (Wilkinson) gave me a strong vibe of Polanski’s masterpiece “Chinatown,” specifically the scene where Jake questions Noah Cross. In that scene, we all know Cross is a guilty, despicable human being; but Polanski chooses not to show him behave that way. In this way, both Wilkinson and Brosnon channel John Huston fully. It also brings out Polanski’s theme that most times, evil prevails because evil can disguise itself.
Despite the great performances, this is entirely Polanski’s film. He turns what could’ve been a trashy thriller into intriguing film noir. The mystery is great because we never give up on it, we want to know what the answer is up to the film’s very final frame.
Polanski’s voice is ever present. He uses both sight and sound perfectly to emphasize mood. Dark shadows mixed with a creepy score heighten the mystery, while the film’s often oddly cheery musical beats will mislead you into thinking things might just be going right for once. Don’t believe that. The film also takes full advantage of the camera, as it heightens tension with the use of longshots. The longshot is key turning an edge-of-your-seat chase scene as well as one pivotal scene at the film’s end.
“The Ghost Writer” is one of those films that doesn’t leave you after you’ve finished it. You’ll talk about the twist, and you’ll likely talk about the modern political worldview the film opens up. You’ll see that things just might work in ways you never even imagined.
After this film was released, many have been harsh toward it because of Polanski’s personal struggles with the law. While his actions in real life may be deplorable, they must remain separate from the artist. Art should not be judged on morality. However, it does seem to be that personal conflict is often what inspires people most in their art. Polanski’s dark films are likely inspired from the unimaginably dark events that have shaped his life. Perhaps without this struggle, without this intrigue, without Polanski, “The Ghost Writer” would not have been the great film that it truly is.