Roman Polanski creates cinematic quicksand, watching gleefully as his modern day heroes subside into the madness, disillusionment, and terror of the unseen threat. His films revel in the slow burn of subversion, where the devil’s casual glimmer fuels the kindling of everyday guilt and desire. Rosemary’s Baby frames the institution of marriage (and family) as a demonic grift, while Chinatown soaks up the failures of law and order within an overflowing well of greed. And even though recent films like The Pianist and Oliver Twist find Polanski hopscotching through time, each addresses a similar thematic concern, whether it be the grand disavowal of humanity by the Nazi’s or the pomp and circumstance of social standing inherent to Dickens’ classic. In the end, injustice transcends period and genre, leaving only a dreadful sinking feeling for comfort.
In the terrific opening shot of his latest film The Ghost Writer, Polanski immediately reminds the viewer we’re traversing a similar minefield of stylistic isolation. Seemingly born out of the foggy darkness and Alexandre Desplat’s booming score, a gigantic ferry emerges, its hull slowly opening as if to swallow the frame whole. Cars depart, leaving only an expensive SUV behind. Polanski then cuts to a body washing up on the beach. The juxtaposition clearly sets the stakes of the game, and Polanski never wavers from this visual threat. The razor-sharp sequence introduces a modern alternate universe brimming with eerie doppelgangers and familiar political follies, but proves improvised explosions of tone will replace timeliness as the main focus.
The Ghost Writer shifts Polanski back to our current political/social strata, where the director uses the cronyism and corruption of the War on Terror to frame an expansive network of suspicion and foul play. When a newly hired “Ghost” (Ewan McGregor) begins to revise the clunky memoirs an exiled British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan), he gets embroiled in a deepening web of uncertainty, and the end result could incriminate the governments on both sides of the pond. While unforgivably long-winded at times, The Ghost Writer brilliantly darkens an already cynical, pitch black political climate. As The Ghost submerges deeper into the ploy, Polanski focuses on the isolation of not only character, but ideology. It’s all about the process of lying, covering up, and plotting. In this shady world, we are only as safe or successful as our least loyal friend, and The Ghost takes on Hitchcockian turn after another until he’s danced with the devil full circle.
The modern day political thriller has been dumbed down substantially of late, so there’s a danger of giving Polanski’s ample substance and keen wit too much credit. But The Ghost Writer remains incredibly satisfying, especially as a display of Polanski’s prolonged excursion down a thematic river of no return. Like all of the director’s tormented protagonists, The Ghost can’t see the forest for the trees, not so much because of ignorance or fear, but due to lack of imagination. The rot always goes much deeper than expected, and the unflinching symbolism throughout creates a diabolical double-edged sword for The Ghost between justice and arrogance. Offscreen violence, sex, and most notably words become the weapons of choice in this battle, and Polanski seems right at home showering his characters in the sleaze of modern day corruption and murder. This sort of grime never washes off.