I didn’t really want to see The Ghost Writer in theaters, despite the solid reviews, 84% at rottentomatoes, academy award-winning director Roman Polanski, and my everlasting affinity for star Ewan McGregor (all cast members from Trainspotting have earned this). The marketing was too off-putting, made it look cheesy, dull, and way too self serious. Well thank goodness for redbox, because I’m here to tell you this is top-shelf Polanski.McGregor is a ghost writer hired to finish the memoirs of a disgraced former British Prime Minister, played cunningly by Pierce Brosnan. The beauty of this film isn’t in the plot or even the twists (one of which caught me completely off guard), but in the atmosphere. From the cryptic opening shot to clever final shot, the movie is dripping with style and a sly sense of humor.
The acting is great across the board, including the underrated Olivia Williams, the always good Tom Wilkinson, and an old man cameo straight from the playbook by Eli Wallach. McGregor does a fine job with a character given no name, no family, and is…buh-dum-dum…like a ghost. The only reason he has the job (since he knows very little about politics) is because his predecessor mysteeeeerrriously drowned. Now I know that sounds a little hokey, and it kind of is, but Polanski knows just how to scale it back enough so it’s neither super obvious nor too artfully subtle.
McGregor is thrown into a world he doesn’t fully understand, drawn into a mystery he has no business solving and, which is more, there can be no real repercussions of piecing the puzzle together. Futility is the brilliant conceit of the entire movie, a sort of Hitchcockian exercise in suspense, complete with MacGuffin. There are some real world parallels thrown into the mix, Tony Blair, state-sanctioned torture, and so forth, but this is more levity than poignancy, a witty wink-wink to the audience.Ultimately, all of the shady looks, double-crosses, and mysterious packages are just part of a grim reflection on the idea that knowledge is fruitless when there’s nothing you can do with it. This theme comes crashing down on us during the all-too-brief-for-my-taste denouement, though its presence looms throughout the picture, in the way a housekeeper labors to sweep up sand in the wind, or how McGregor attempts to ride a bike on gravel. The art direction, complete with foreboding windows and stifling modern art in a prison like mansion on an island, where most the film takes place, works wonders on further hitting this point. The devil is, indeed, in the details.Which is exactly why I wouldn’t mind watching this film again. Not so much to see the clues that I missed, a la Shutter Island, but to soak in more of the environment I might have missed while hopelessly trying to solve the puzzle. So do yourself a favor, ignore the horrible marketing and forget about the lack of explosions or car chases (there is, however, a cheeky use of a car’s GPS) and luxuriate in this slow burn thriller.