Publish or Perish
2010 // France - Germany - UK // Roman Polanski // March 14, 2010 // Theatrical Print (St. Louis Cinemas Chase Park Plaza Cinema)
B+ - Roman Polanski's thrillers pulse with their own curious rhythms, conveying a sense that everything—conversations, knowledge, even physical space—is ever so slightly out of sync. Few directors possess his uncanny facility for pulling together all the elements of cinema, especially the selection of shots and music, to evoke a veiled, relentlessly sinister reality. Whether he succeeds (Chinatown) or fails (The Ninth Gate), the result is unfailingly sumptuous and moody. So it is with The Ghost Writer, a potboiler set in the rotten twin worlds of politics and publishing, executed with the auteur's customary dramatic dexterity and passion for generic trappings. Polanski makes no effort to conceal his personal fingerprints on the film: its politics are acidly suspicious of American power and yet also vaguely sympathetic to (ahem) public figures hounded by public outrage and the courts. Yet the film remains relentlessly engaged with the noir-tinged plight of its nameless protagonist (Ewan McGregor), a man who, like Jake Gittes, considers himself a savvy mercenary, and whose pursuit of the truth is rooted not in airy ideals but in his resentment at being played for a fool.
McGregor's character, a rootless thirty-something hack writer that the credits only identify as the Ghost, has been retained to finish the memoirs of the beleaguered former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan, exceptionally cast a half-step against type). An unambiguous analogue to Tony Blair, Lang is a Labor man with a gleaming smile, but he nonetheless oversaw an authoritarian government that became mired in a Middle Eastern war alongside the U.S. As the International Criminal Court prepares to indict the former PM for war crimes related to the rendition of terrorism suspects, Lang and his staff are holed up at his publisher's modernist beach retreat on a gray, blustery New England island. The Ghost arrives to find everyone acting strangely, from the understandably agitated Lang, to his shuttered, disdainful wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), to his cheerily looming assistant, Amelia (Kim Cattral). Incidentally, the Ghost is not the first writer to tackle Lang's memoirs. One day the previous ghost inexplicably took a ferry to the mainland and back, vanishing mid-passage and then washing up drowned on the beach. Was it an accident or a suicide, as one character muses? Or a third possibility, as the Ghost no doubt wonders?
The story, which Polanski and Robert Harris adapted from the latter's novel, encompasses a perilous labyrinth of politics, war, money, sex, and, above all, lies, which the Ghost only gradually perceives and pieces together. The particular appeal of a Polanski thiller is the slow, effortless manner in which the film lowers us into an abyss of vast, complex intrigues, and The Ghost Writer is no exception. Save its mystifying openings shots of the drowned man's abandoned SUV on the ferry, the film unfolds almost entirely from the Ghost's perspective, allowing us to experience his mounting anxiety in real time. Frequently this unease stems from his awareness of his own failures of discernment, whether the object is an Argento-esque cryptic clue or simply a distant figure whose identity and intentions he cannot determine. (Is any director more skilled at using field size to create uncertainty and tension than Polanski?) Just as often, the Ghost expresses a blend of dread and irritation at the notion that someone (or several someones) is lying to his face. This doesn't so much offend his sense of truth—he makes his living pretending his words are someone else's, after all—as it chafes at his self-conception as a world-weary realist. The Ghost is a bit of tabula rasa, but McGregor's creased and rumpled boyishness allows us to easily engage with a protagonist who is faceless by design. Much is made of the fact that the Ghost has no family, no commitments, and no political beliefs. He could vanish and no one would take notice, a fact that seems more and more ominous as he plunges deeper into the film's mysteries.
Harris' screenplay crackles with just the right allotment of gallows drollness, without ever making a show of its own wittiness. Polanski places significant emotional emphasis on the revelations at the heart of the film's puzzle, balancing them adeptly against the progressively escalating sense of apprehension. Much of the atmosphere springs from fearful anticipation that danger awaits around every corner, and the third act does a masterful job of evoking a sense of palpable uncertainty about where exactly the plot is going and who exactly the Ghost can trust. (When was the last time you could honestly say about a thriller?) When the answers finally come, the simplicity of it all is matched only by our relief at having something concrete to latch onto. And then Polanski wallops us with a final shot that is nearly flawless in its execution.
For all the film's plot-centered twists, which meander past a Haliburton stand-in and the Ivy League intelligentsia, one gets the sense that Polanski's primary thematic interest here is the destruction of the self at the hands of others, a decades-long occupation for the director. Like Polanski's under-valued 1976 thriller The Tenant, The Ghost Writer concerns a man who is slowly, inexorably being transformed into the person who preceded him, an unwilling evolution of identity perpetrated with off-handed malevolence by the people that surround him. Other manifestations of this principle abound in the film, such as in the suggestion that Lang is merely a plastic puppet controlled by more purposeful parties. Polanski has long been fascinated with the fear that the self is perpetually under siege by the often ravenous demands of others, and here he manages another absorbing expression of this theme, evincing an unflagging cynicism for the notion that one can ever truly be one's own man. That he achieves this within the parameters of a riveting, evocative, flat-out entertaining thriller makes it all the more gratifying.