Dir. Roman Polanski
(2010, PG-13, 128 min)
★ ★ ★ ★
I have seen enough movies that twist fatigue sets in quickly. In some thrillers you can feel them pulling you through the maze, guiding you from plot point to plot point, and in the wrong hands you find yourself bored by the contortions of the screenplay. Instead of engrossed by a story you’re anticipating the beats. “Are we there yet?” you ask the driver. “Wait,” he says, “I’ve got something great to show you.” You roll your eyes and hunch down in the back seat. “Wake me when we get there.”
The Ghost Writer, on the contrary, is the best pure thriller I’ve seen since 2008’s underrated Transsiberian, which would have made Hitchcock proud. What I mean by purity is that it’s not high-concept. It’s not dependent on twists or storytelling hooks or stylistic flourishes — though many great films have been made with twists, hooks, and flourishes. It’s a story told straight ahead and directed with self-assurance. Its narrative is lean, not fussy. It utilizes atmosphere, setting, cinematography, and careful pacing to generate its effect. It builds and builds, and it’s so absorbing that the destination is ultimately less important than the excitement of getting there. It hums with suspense.
Ewan McGregor stars as an unnamed ghost writer assigned to complete the memoir of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), replacing the previous ghost writer, Lang’s trusted aide Mike McAra, who recently drowned. It may have been an accident, or it may have been suicide, or …
The story is set mostly on Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts, where Lang stays in a beachfront house with his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), his assistant Amelia (Kim Cattrall), and the rest of his staff while dodging accusations back home. A former cabinet minister has accused him of war crimes, and popular support for him is waning. Director Roman Polanski, still a fugitive in the United States, filmed in Germany to double for New England, and his impeccable evocation of setting is the first thing that draws us in. He makes Martha’s Vineyard serene yet ominous, with a grey foreboding sky covering its idyllic beach community. The interior of Lang’s house is angular, efficient, cold in its clean-lined modernity. We’re struck also by the ghost writer’s hotel, which has warmer textures but is so vacant it has the feeling of a cave. He’s the only guest.
The tension slowly increases, first from the external pressure of the International Criminal Court, then from the hint of something more sinister in Lang’s past. The ghost visits a college professor named Paul Emmett, played with icy suspicion by Tom Wilkinson, whose polite words and casual demeanor have a dark undercurrent. The ghost finds himself trying to evade a car that’s following him, but instead of giving us the catharsis of a high-speed chase, Polanski ratchets the tension higher with looks in rear-view mirrors and up and down desolate roads. Even the parking lot at the ferry pier takes on an eerie sense of isolation and danger.
My favorite performance of the film comes from Williams. As Lang’s wife Ruth she at first seems like a conventional kind of political wife, supporting her husband’s ambitions — sometimes grudgingly — but savvy enough to have had ambitions of her own. What makes her performance so effective is how ambiguous it is. An air of mystery hangs over even her candid revelations, so we’re never sure what she knows about her husband, or what he knows about her. The actresses showed a similar elusiveness on the short-lived FOX sci-fi series Dollhouse; the filming of its two seasons book-ended her performance in Ghost Writer, and taken together they are a prolonged study in cagey, razor-sharp cunning.
The story contains an unveiled criticism of American foreign policy in terms of both its treatment of prisoners and its treatment of allies, which is even more potent when considered in the context of Polanski’s present relationship with the United States justice system. One also wonders whether he was especially drawn to the story of a man exiled due to legal trouble, but anyone concerned that the film is a self-righteous airing of anti-American grievances need not worry. The film’s politics play as a strong but unintrusive thematic backdrop to the taut mystery, which contains jolting surprises and leads to a closing shot so good you won’t be able to shake it.