Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Ghost Writer (***1/2)

Directed by Roman Polanski


Roman Polanski is a person whose reputation precedes him on several levels. But for the purposes of this blog, let us just say that every time he releases a new film, it is a event (that's right, even Oliver Twist). In the case of The Ghost Writer, he's releasing what is probably his best film since 2002's The Pianist (for which he won his first Academy Award). I'm not sure this film will be that big of a smash, but with its superb cast and genuine suspense, Polanski created one of the best film noirs in recent decades.

When a downtrodden writer (Ewan McGreggor) is offered the chance to be a ghost writer on a former prime minister's memoirs, he takes the job begrudgingly. He doesn't care much for politics or droning autobiographies, but he needs the money and the job is offering plenty of that. Amongst other things, he is told that he must finish the book in a month. The men who hire him explain that he's actually the second ghost writer hired for this particular project, after the original writer drowned. Even with all these details, the Ghost agrees to take the job... like I said, begrudgingly.

The prime minister being chronicled is Adam Lang (Pierce Bronson), whose anti-terrorism stance and pro-American policies have made him unpopular in England since his term ended. These days, Lang is holed up on his Long Island beach home with his cold, but devoted assistant Amelia (Kim Cattrall) and his meddling wife Ruth (Olivia Williams). Upon arriving, the Ghost is immediately confronted with the uncomfortable relationships within the swanky home and it doesn't take long before he is swept up into Lang's latest scandal.

When one of Lang's former political colleagues blows the whistle on some of his past war crimes, outrage emerges and protesters begin camping out on the perimeter of his home. It puts the Lang residence in a state of great irritation and the Ghost is caught right in the middle of it. As the Ghost begins his version of the memoirs, he begins to discover insights into Lang's background that were left behind by the first writer. As he does further investigation, stunning realizations are made. All of a sudden, the first writer's death doesn't look like much of an accident.

My few problems with The Ghost Writer are nitpicky in nature, and I should probably just get them off of my chest right away. In an obvious scheme to gain the film a PG-13 rating, several instances of the characters using the word "fuck" were dubbed over with words like "bugger" or "shit". Also, in what is probably a consequence of Polanski's inability to enter the United States, the Cape Cod backgrounds are CGI-ed in many moments, as the character's faces are very obviously digitally placed over the scenery. The only reason I discuss such immaterial aspects of the movie is because they were so distracting and frustrating throughout, and they are the sole thing that is keeping the movie from approaching greatness.

But once the viewer is able to get passed those things (and I assume that most will), they are in for a great treat. What's most impressive about The Ghost Writer is its ability to possess film noir's most recognizable archetypes (femme fatale, morally ambiguous universe, hard-boiled protagonist) without seeming dated. Along with cinematographer Pawel Edelman, Polanski creates a wonderfully slick thriller that seems very much of its time and is still very aware of its own intertextuality. Not since Chinatown (another Polanski film) has classic film noir been produced so properly and seamlessly.

The film's plot is not nearly as complex as it tries to look (and one particular sequence in which a major character is able to find incriminating evidence on Google seems like an incredible case of screenwriting oversight), but there is never a dull moment. The performances hold the film together tightly, with especially good work from McGreggor and Williams. The actors do a good job of fleshing out the characters, while still allowing the plot to be the film's main star. Even in its slower moments, there are still images and pieces of dialogue that keep you intrigued. There is always something that seems a little bit off, and it isn't until the final reveal toward the end that everything makes sense.

As I've already said, there are things about this movie that hold it back from being a great film. All in all, though, it is hard to debate that it isn't a very good film. I'll admit that I come into this movie with baggage, loving film noir more than most specific genres; and to see a contemporary film capture that spirit so effortlessly makes me smile. But The Ghost Writer does work on a separate level beyond that, though, because it is a very effective thriller. It's a shame, though. It could've been even more effective if the characters were allowed to say "fuck" every once in a while.


Casey said...

Saw this movie a couple nights ago, and I still haven't decided what kind of a review to write. I did like it a lot; but I didn't think it was the best movie I ever saw either. Not sure how I felt about the ending, but I think that's how it was supposed to feel.

I hadn't noticed the CGI-ed backdrops or the dubbed over "fuck" words. I guess i wasn't looking close enough.

Great review!

James Colon said...

It is a movie that makes you take your time figuring out whether or not you like it. I saw it with a friend who was terribly frustrated that I wouldn't commit to an immediate opinion.

"So, what'd you think about the movie, dude?"

"I'm not sure, yet."

"Come on, man! We saw it an hour ago!"