Haunted past 

Polanski turns gray thriller into gold

There's often a strange disconnect between what is nominally and what is really at stake in a Roman Polanski thriller. The contraband in Frantic, when we finally lay eyes on it, seems almost unworthy of the Parisian intrigue surrounding it, resembling nothing as much as a voltage converter Harrison Ford forgot to pack in his carry-on luggage. In 1967's The Fearless Vampire Killers, what's at stake is the final triumph of evil over good, a recurring theme in the Polanski filmography, but rarely stated so explicitly.

FVK is overdue for rediscovery, in my opinion, and not just because vampire movies and miniseries are all the rage these days (I mean, even the Swedes are getting in on it). It might not be his best movie, but it's the definitive Polanski statement: evil always wins, or walks away, in any case. (Also, the opening Transylvanian sleigh-ride scene of Fearless Vampire Killers is one of the trippiest things ever committed to celluloid. I think one of the reasons I fell in love with Guy Maddin's Careful is that it isolated that same hidden lobe in my brain that Fearless Vampire Killers first awakened and palpated with its psychedelic artifice.)

The same message of evil triumphant comes through loud and clear in The Ghost Writer, starring Ewan McGregor as a ghostwriter dispatched by his agent and publisher to make a quick quarter-million rewriting the flatulent memoirs of Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), a former British Prime Minister ensconced in the publisher's modernist beach house on Martha's Vineyard. Right as McGregor's "ghost" is about to begin the job, the World Court starts preparing charges against the former PM for his alleged role in the kidnapping and torture of terror suspects. McGregor arrives on the island just in time for a media crapstorm. The atmosphere in the besieged beach house shared by Lang, his wife (Olivia Williams), his personal secretary (Kim Cattrall) and two ghosts (neither literal) is fraught with paranoia and 500-pound gorillas.

click to enlarge Ewan McGregor in the latest Cialis commercial.
  • Ewan McGregor in the latest Cialis commercial.

The Ghost Writer is a somber-looking movie, all November gray and rain, with the interiors of the beach house not much warmer than the slate-gray scenery outside. It's brilliantly set on an island, the isolation of which is repeatedly underscored to the viewer, which has a wonderful multiplier effect on Polanski's customary foreboding. You feel cold, clammy and trapped watching it, much like its characters feel, forever taking ferry rides and rain-pelting walks just to escape the claustrophobia of the beach house.

What is it that lets us know in the first few minutes that we are watching a Roman Polanski movie? That he still takes his time, for one thing—kind of a novelty in these days of expensively made but cheaply crafted thrillers that leave you feeling like you just finished solving a two-hour story problem a few minutes behind the smartest kid in math class, not like you just enjoyed watching a movie. By the minute-mark when other directors have already laid out the stakes through expository dialogue and set multiple plotlines in motion, Polanski is still uncoiling those distinctive tentacles of brooding and foreboding that pull you into his movies every time.

Which is not to say he's reinventing the wheel in the thriller genre. He still uses some of the same shorthand as other directors for anchoring vital information in the viewer's mind. At some point almost any thriller, and a political thriller especially, a character is going to be charged with the task of revealing something he's discovered in writing to viewers who don't have time to do the same, generally either through a reverb-heavy voice-over or by reading out loud in an unnatural way.

Polanski can't quite get McGregor out of this jam, either. I'm always impressed by a movie written simply enough to get around this, though in small doses either expository device is preferable to, say, not knowing what's going on in a movie until the last 20 minutes when it's explained in an interminable monologue by one of the characters. I refer here to Tell No One, about which all those who recommended it to me so vigorously should prepare for a frank exchange of ideas upon our next meeting.

I can't think of a current filmmaker who comes as close to being a world-historical figure as Polanski, who, at 76, is cinema's red thread through some of the darkest days of the 20th century. Holocaust survivor, Manson survivor, man without a country. When Polanski received an Academy Award for The Pianist and Hollywood as a bloc stood behind him, the scandal surrounding his 1978 flight from the United States seemed a distant memory. Since his arrest in Switzerland last September, this ancient Hollywood history has become current events again and will naturally color some people's impressions of both The Ghost Writer and Polanski's continuing vitality as a filmmaker.

Although The Ghost Writer was in the can before his arrest, so clearly does the former Prime Minister's predicament reflect Polanski's that it's hard not to read the movie on one level, and a pretty high one at that, as eerily prescient allegory. And that's a shame, because The Ghost Writer is the work of a master and deserves better than to be tainted by Polanski's past purely because of its weird timing.

The Ghost Writer continues at the Carmike 10.

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