How do we start talking about Roman Polanski? His most recent film, The Ghost Writer, was upstaged and rendered obsolete the moment he was captured and held under house arrest in Switzerland. The debate here in America reached a kind of hysteria. Thus, there was no room, nor any invitation, to look at The Ghost Writer.
The film is one that, like many of Polanski’s films, is destined to dwell as a hidden gem. He has a vivid sense of fear and paranoia and it permeates every frame of The Ghost Writer, as it does Frantic, Chinatown, Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and of course, The Tenant. The only director who shares this unique sensibility with Polanski is Alfred Hitchcock, and it is to Hitchcock that Polanski pays homage with The Ghost Writer.
I find that, among the films released so far this year, there are three that express paranoia and fear of what must be some sort of grappling with the modern age: Shutter Island, Inception and The Ghost Writer. Three films by three masters of the form. Two of the three are simply not in the dialogue among Oscar bloggers, nor will they be on the forefront of anyone’s mind in a couple of months when the awards season launches.
Scorsese’s film was met with middling reviews. To push it for Oscar would be to launch a very expensive campaign because word of mouth, buzz and critic reviews won’t do that job for the studio. This is why it was pushed into the next year, probably.
The Ghost Writer? It has been eclipsed by Polanski’s past. And it is ironic that the film itself deals with a crime a politician cannot shake and an outraged public on the march. Polanski wouldn’t know that he himself would experience this the very same year he is releasing The Ghost Writer. That is what happened. Polanski got off without incident, however, but the movie has been shitcanned.
So why bring it up now? It defies logic, I know. It isn’t really to pump up its Oscar chances; the Academy shies away from this level of controversy. Just saying the director’s name in association with the film invites debate about Polanski himself and probably puts off audiences. It’s like trying to sell a movie starring Mel Gibson.
But The Ghost Writer is brilliant. Start to spectacular finish it is a tightly wound political thriller full of fascinating characters and great actors. The blend of that scenery, cinematography and score is chilling. But it is really how the mystery unravels that holds your attention.
And it contains the single best cinematic ending of the year, with the possible exception of Inception. Actually, now that I think of it, all three of these films, the discarded The Ghost Writer and Shutter Island have pretty great endings as well. But The Ghost Writer’s is unlike any I have ever seen. Look, there is a reason why Chinatown is still considered one of the greatest films ever made: Polanski is a genius.
As a director, Polanski is in complete control from start to finish. Watch the film a couple of times and you will only discover more depth — more clues. What struck me about it was how insecure the protagonist is. Like Leonardo DiCaprio in Shutter Island, McGregor can’t trust anyone. He is the hunter and the hunted.
The other theme in the film I appreciate, and also makes me wonder about Polanski’s curious arrest this year, is the idea of a CIA agent in Britain infiltrating their government in hopes of carrying out American objectives – specifically, military objectives. It is, like State of Play, very much focused on the private security contractors — their shady dealings with our government that run mostly unchecked by the American public. The Ghost Writer is one of the few films that turns its focus squarely on the glaring truth about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the mess we find ourselves in, and our own moral obligation to face up to the truth. That gives The Ghost Writer an added layer of paranoia.
The Oscar race is driven not by the right film, but the right film at the right time. The Ghost Writer and Shutter Island are films that simply missed their moment in time. But that doesn’t make them any less than what they are.
But don’t take my word for it. Here is Kenneth Turan: