The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, 2010) – New Movie Review

The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, 2010) – What is with all the expository dialogue in "Thrillers" lately? When did such great directors such as Scorsese and Polanski decide that they should model their films after a Kevin Smith yak-fest? Usually when you write "REVEAL" in a screenplay it's a camera direction, not a general principle of dialogue. Lately I've seen a lot of this tension. First it brought Shutter Island to a standstill, then the tension shown up in Flame and Citron out of Denmark (see my review), and now it's infected Roman Polanski in his much-praised new "thriller" The Ghost Writer. In all of these films, major elements of the plot which had remained unrevealed during their dramatic and effective build-ups, come tumbling out of characters' mouths with such exacting specificity that I can imagine (and have witnessed) people leaving the theaters scratching their Heads, saying, "What?" The wealth of information fed to us with a spoon makes us wonder if we are being secretly slipped something we are not expecting, and when "the big reveal" takes an hour hour to unfold, it feels like it never unfolded at all, and We wonder if we missed it. Alas, we did not. Nobody awake could. It's a cliche to write that a good thriller "keeps you guessing." These films "keep answering you" – so does that make them anti-thrillers? Maybe this time I'll cleanse my pallet, and satisfy my desire for nostalgia, with a screening of The Tenant.

The Ghost Writer referees to the unspoken protagonist played by Ewan MacGregor, who is hired to help publish the memoirs of Adam Lang, a stand-in for Tony Blair, who is holed up in Cape Cod to escape the anti-war protester that plague him Back home. The Ghost is replacing another writer who recently washed up on a beach with lungs full of seawater. Just as Lang and his new college beginning work, charges come down from the International Criminal Court accusing Lang of assisting the CIA in conducting torture on secret flights run by Hatherton, a stand-in for Halliburton. The Lang team goes on full defense and discusses their strategic options, which leads them to conclude that they have to stay in the US to avoid the ICC.

As the sharp, womanizing, pretty-boy Lang, Pierce Brosnan has never been better, nor has he ever ever been better cast. The casting choices across the board are brilliant, especially Jim Belushi as a brash American publishing executive, and Kim Cattrall as Lang's composed and intimidating assistant / mistress. There's no Best Casting Oscar category, but casting director Fiona Weir describes some sort of award.

Polanski demonstrates his impressive directorial skills by controlling the frame with such precision that no detail goes without notice. However, the details are inadmissible mundane. The film suffers from a lack of motivation and a lack of locomotion. The Ghost himself does not care enough about the stakes; All he wants is to get his paycheck, and curl up with a bottle of scotch at the end of the day. He decides he does not want to investigate, so Polanski makes his investigation turn on a totally unserious desire to check out how well a Mercedes-Benz dashboard navigational system works. Then later, laughably, the Ghost discovers a critical bit of information by running a Google search. Later he tells what he "discovered" to Robert Rycart, a major political opponent of Lang's, and he seems genuinely surprised by the news. Rycart is not very tech-savvy.

The problem is not just how the information is fed to us, but also just what that information is. Once we connect the dots (or sooner, have the dots connected for us in slow motion) we are not left with anything solid to hang our hat on. Before the (long, slow) reveal, we knew that there were shady dealings between the British government and the US government and that the previous ghost writer was likely killed to cover up some defect corruption that he had uncovered in his research. After the (long, slow) reveal, we know that there were shady dealings between the British and US governments and that the previous ghost writer was probably killed to cover up some defect corruption, only now we know who two of the "bad guys" Are. The stakes of the plot are pretty low.

Maybe The Ghost Writer is mocking the thriller genre from a lofty, postmodern point-of-view. Since he does not spend any energy building suspense, Polanski does have an ample opportunity to make dry, ironic jokes with a wink and a nod to the audience. If there were any tension, these jokes would cause it to dissipate. But there really is not any, so actually they are quite welcome distractions. MacGregor is a charmer, and carries the movie quite well, engaging the audience whenever given the opportunity. So does the irony mixed with the literalism of the plot make the film one big ironic "wink and a nod" at the thriller genre? Is this film hunting larger game than the mere effective thriller twist? Maybe (I'll let you decide that for yourself). Polanski is dealing with themes of excuse and the trouble that personal charm can get you in, which, as those of you who have not been living in a hole the last 30+ years can attest, might be notions weighing on the director's mind. Further, the plot could be read as an indictment of the Bush and Blair regimes and how they ran foreign policy. Ultimately, though, the political messaging is pretty slight. Lang is allowed to make an unchallenged "Come on get real" defense of the handling of the war on Terror, and then the issue hits the backburner as we focus on the less interesting matter of resolving the fate of our young ghost writer.