Oeuvre is an in-depth examination of the entire body of work of an important director.
After a brief detour with his previous two features, The Ghost Writer returns Polanski to his bread and butter mode, the thriller, and it’s the sort of genre film that older directors make – clean and sharp-edged, well executed and remarkably competent. Ones that draw favorable comparison to Hitchcock for their workmanlike craftsmanship rather than their vibrance and inventiveness. This isn’t to say that the film isn’t a pleasure to watch, it’s a strong piece of entertainment, taking itself just seriously enough for us to draw enjoyment from its over the top, otherworldly gravity and atmosphere. It’s smarter than the average bear, but it also lacks a real sense of urgency, a thriller that plays host to what may well be the most half-heartedly filmed car chase in film history. Its warmth or vitality lies in its chilliness.
Pierce Brosnan plays the thinly veiled Tony Blair analog, former Prime Minister Adam Lang, with a real sense of flair, reveling in his elusiveness and in his contained, yet always imminent, snarl. Lang is holed up in an icy modernist home on the Cape in Massachusetts, hiding from the media as discussions of his active choice to use, and assist the US in using, rendition on detainees escalate from speculative to investigative, and eventually to a legal setting, with Lang called on to be prosecuted in international court. Ewan McGregor plays The Ghost, an unnamed professional ghost writer hired to help Lang put together his post-career memoirs before the scandal breaks out, and who, as the media presence in the sleepy New England town grows, is forced to hole up with his employer, where he investigates more and more the weirdly suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of Lang’s right-hand man.
The Ghost is a mercenary, and in a way his character and the narrative of this film echo The Ninth Gate, in which a seemingly cocky, detached specialist is called into a situation that forces him to get invested, but has a hard time figuring out how, or what to do. Polanski was enthralled to the point of looking foolish throughout the prior film, like a friend who repeats urban legends to you with conviction, but The Ghost Writer rests on issues of morality and personal responsibility that are, somehow, richer foundations for framing a conspiracy around.
Early on at Lang’s house, an Olafur Eliasson book is conspicuously visible on a coffee table, and you can sense his influence throughout the film, in the monumental coldness of this large, angular house that contains most of the film’s action, in the hazy, weirdly green-screened looking visuals of the film, and thematically in the way that Eliasson’s work tries to redefine environments and people’s perceptions of them through selective enhancements and distractions. The culminating scene where Lang angrily defends himself and his decisions by indirectly acknowledging their monstrousness but not apologizing for them is a classic verbal optical illusion – “Let’s make separate lines at the airport for flights influenced by information obtained via torture and flights that aren’t – which do you put your kids on?” Whichever one Polanski’s not on, am I right? Earlier in the film, Lang admits to not knowing about how the world works, having to borrow money from his aides because he carries nothing on him, having to ask everyone around him to do everything for him. He and his wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), appear throughout the film to regard people as functions rather than entities. How does someone go about torturing someone? When the Ghost is persuaded to help draft a speech for Lang to give as a defense, and he sees it on television, his trepidation seems to melt away, and his face lights up at the moment he recognizes his own words.
The parallels between Lang’s and Polanski’s lives are pretty interesting in the context of this film, both fleeing jurisdiction and offering denials, refusals, and justifications. What good is information obtained via torture, when it’s been proven that people will say anything under that kind of pain and stress? Interestingly enough, in one sense Polanski’s got one up on Lang, in that he seems to at least be aware of this folly, or at least capable of seeing it in his fictional characters’ statements. Throughout the film, the issue of Lang’s obliviousness is addressed, and the reason for it is explored – in order to make big decisions people need to shelter themselves from the smaller ones. By not making smaller ones, or living in circumstances that eliminate them from his life altogether, Lang escapes the context of life entirely, no longer even capable of visualizing the realities he’s affecting with his unreal decisions. I won’t spoil it, but the twistiness of this movie, the thriller-genre obligations that force it to push its narrative beyond this illusive space almost dilutes the film’s more impacting moments, even as they make it as a whole a much more enthralling and hearty affair.
The Ghost Writer isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s admirable. Darker days seem to be ahead for Polanski, with 2012 poised to bring us Carnage, a comedy (uh oh!) adaptation of a Broadway play (God of Carnage) that was itself, essentially, a slightly longer, self-contained sitcom. Here’s hoping it’s good, in spite of the odds, but if not, we’ve still got this as proof he still had it.