Monday, March 22, 2010

The Ghost Writer

(Warning. Here There Be Spoilers)

The Ghost Writer is by far Polanski’s most intertextual film. It stands on its own as a work of art, but casts back reflecting virtually everything Polanski has ever made. This provides its own difficulties, as even before with Polanski it was notoriously difficult to discuss his art without discussing the man. With the recent developments in his decades long scandal, its damn near impossible.

But I will endeavor anyway. Like Tenant, Macbeth, Oliver Twist and Rosemary’s Baby, The Ghost Writer is a film about a person warped and forced to fill a role by malignant forces. Like Knife In The Water and Cul De Sac the film has at its center a psycho sexual relationship that develops from odd to actively poisonous. Like Chinatown its about the depths of the hidden power of those eternally behind the throne (There’s even a throwback to the sinister bibliophiles of The Ninth Gate in the opening sequences). And like all Polanski films it thrums with a malignant paranoia that threatens to devour its protagonists whole.

Oh and did I mention its funny?

With all this auteurist solitaire, it is easy to miss the many things that The Ghost Writer does so very well. So before we really start chasing down this rabbit hole in earnest, lets take a few moments to recognize them. McGregor gives a strong central performance, seeming younger then he has in years and very vulnerable. Olivia Williams whose comeback in the last couple of years has been very heartening gives a fantastic performance. As she’s gotten older, the softness that made her so appealing in Rushmore and The Sixth Sense has been replaced by a severity that somehow, never threatens to undermine her inherent vulnerability, nor her genuine sensuality. Her role is genuinely erotic, and is the true pitch black heart of the film. Williams has always been an underrated actress, and Polanski here uses her as a landmine that explodes with concussive force when you least expect it.

The movie is impeccably cast, this is the kind of film where even the likes of Kim Catrall and James Freaking Belushi are on their A Game.

Bronsan himself is fine in the role, all Teflon charm. We are never quite sure what to be allowed to think of him, and the late period twists of the movie make his character almost tragic. A charming putz of a pawn who never would have gotten into anything more damaging then alcholism and sleeping around, who has perhaps found himself turned into a war criminal against his (none too strong) will.

We can never be sure.

Polanski’s narrative is a sleek serpentine thing. He keeps the tension on high boil despite the fact that not much happens on the surface. We’re not even allowed a hint of what the true conspiracy is until the final third of the film. And even then not all the implications are known until the closing moments. The Ghost Writer is a film that begs repeat viewings. As well it should, because despite being such an enigmatic film. I would not be at all surprised if the film ends up being regarded in later years as something of a Rosetta Stone for his work.

The Ghost Writer follows McGregor as a callow young writer for hire, hired to whip the sagging manuscript of an English Prime Minister who greatly resembles someone whose names sounds like Dony Dlair. McGregor’s predecessor has seemingly committed suicide, possibly over how bad the books come out, and it seems like just a salvage job, trying to scrape some profit out of a boondoggle, until Dony Dlair finds himself under investigation for handing over British citizens to the CIA, and finds himself in the midst of a genuine media shit storm. McGregor now under tight pressure to finish the book, starts digging frantically, and manages to uncover some very nasty secrets. Secrets that suggest Dony Dlair being such a stooge for the US is not a coincidence.

What makes The Ghost Writer so effective is how long Polanski is able to keep his cards off the table. Its us who are uneasy not the characters. Because like Polanski’s poor doomed character in The Tenant, and poor doe in the headlights Rosemary Woodhouse, McGregor is being groomed. Not intenitionally this time, but by the cruel fate that haunts all of Polanski's films (and as a side rant are there people out there who still don't understand why he directed Macbeth? It always rankles me how that movie gets dismissed.)

He ends up sleeping in the dead man’s room, driving the dead man’s car (in one of the film’s funniest scenes the house’s garderner attempts to literally force McGregor into sitting in the dead man’s seat), wearing his clothes, even sleeping with his mistress all before embarking on the dead man’s crusade, McGregor is a ghost alright, just not of the man he’s been hired to be.

And what to make of Tom Wilkonson’s (deliciously toad like) Paul Emmett. Crouching in his hole in the woods like a troll from a fairy tale, licking his chops waiting for a second foolish writer to come knocking on his door. He is the unseen power. He is the corruption. He is Cross, Balkan, The Weird Sistees and the Cassevettes. The terrible thing at the center. The consuming corruption. The Rot.

And the rot does consume swiftly and terribly, first Bronsan in a moment no less shocking for the fact that you can see it coming one second before it happens (How it happens leaves many intriguing questions. Was an opportunity provided? Or is their a parallel Manchurian Candidate narritive?). And then McGregor in what has to be the most ignominious death a hero has received since The Bad Sleep Well.In the end the exact hows, who's and whys matter very little. Who kills them? The same terrible sharpshooter who drew a bead on the fleeing Dunaway in Chinatown, the same force that drove the Nazi's into Poland to kill Szpilman's family, chose to fuck with Macbeth's destiny and sent a stupid hippie with a messanic complex to Polanski's home because it used to belong to a music producer the hippie was mad, at forcing him to kill Polanski's wife and unborn child instead.

Polanski’s humor has always been one of his least appreciated attributes. And this is perhaps his funniest film since The Fearless Vampire Killers. But his humor is so undervalued because it seems so primarily unhinged. Not jokes but funhouse distortions. Take the bizarrely dressed seemingly zombiefied young woman who clerks McGregor’s Bed And Breakfast in Clown make up. Or Bronsan’s health fetish in the background of nearly every scene he’s in. Or the nonchalant mugging McGregor gets in one of his first characters seen. Take finally the Gardener, futily trying to sweep the leaves off the deck as the harsh Hampton winds blow them on and around. Chasing after natures fury with a broom, dustpan, and a wheelbarrow. As futile as McGregor’s would be whistleblowing. Perhaps that shot sums up the whole of the movie. Perhaps that’s the shot that sums up the whole of Polanski’s career.

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