Directed by Roman Polanski
I really loved Ghost Writer the first two times I saw it, so I decided to watch it a third time when I saw it on HBO NOW. It’s a neat, fairly entertaining thriller that, after watching it this third time, feels like a noir detective story. Polanski after all did direct a famous noir detective film, 1974’s Chinatown. In this movie, Ewan McGregor plays an unnamed ghost writer brought on to help finish the manuscript of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). He is hired under tense, eerie circumstances as Lang is about to be charged with a war crime for use of torture and the previous ghost writer, Mike McAra, just drowned.
The movie opens with a ferry arriving at its destination and cars driving off, leaving one slick BMW behind. This is the car McAra had driven. Soon after we see a shot of his bloated body washed up on the shore. The music is quick and tense, like something out of a Hitchcock film, and this is all shown to us before we meet our protagonist, who I will refer to as the Ghost (that’s how he’s credited on IMDB).
So the tone of the film is almost so gleefully dramatic that it’s cheesy, but it’s never too much. The drama always feel playful, like Polanski knows that despite the bleak, dire circumstances of the characters, the audience is sitting back and eating popcorn while they watch. Just because a story is bleak and the environment washed out in overcast skies, that doesn’t mean the movie has to be weighed down. Ghost Writer is a puzzle, like many detective stories, and all the clues are laid out carefully and methodically.
The difference here, of course, is that the Ghost is there to do a job, to write a book. He ends up playing more of a detective anyways, so his profession is really just a way to get him into the story so he can play around in the mystery. The Ghost shows up to Lang’s guarded modern mansion on Cape Cod, and everything is kept under surveillance. The Ghost is told– okay, I feel ridiculous calling him the Ghost, so from now on he’s Ewan.
Ewan is told that the manuscript (all 624 pages) must stay at the house at all times. Other details we learn = Lang is hated, about to be charged with war crimes, Ewan admittedly knows nothing about politics, McAra’s death is very suspicious and Ewan is probably in danger. We only know that last piece of information because of course he’s in danger, the tone, the music and the reason the story exists tells us this.
Ewan tries to begin interviewing Lang, but politics gets in the way and he’s quickly lifted away to deal with his impending criminal charges. While he’s gone, Ewan finds a clue McAra left behind, and he investigates it. What we learn is that McAra’s body would have never washed ashore where it did based on the current. An elderly man also tells Ewan that someone allegedly saw flashlights at the beach, and that same someone is now in a coma. So it’s clear what Ewan is thinking and what we think happened. We’re always right there with Ewan, never a step ahead and only occasionally a step behind when he pieces together clues that we don’t yet understand (yet we uncover them at the same time he does).
It’s at this point that Ewan gets involved with Adam’s wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams). She seems particularly agitated by Adam’s problems, demonstrating her role in his life by critiquing his performance on television (“don’t smile,” she says before he smiles). With Ruth’s role in the story, the film began to feel more noir-ish and she looked ready to be the femme fatale character.
Adam gets into the BMW, the same one McAra drove before his death, and follows the GPS route already put into the system. It takes him to the home of Paul Emmett who claims not to have really known Adam Lang despite being in photographs with him. After some research, Ewan learns that Emmett was a member of the CIA back in 1971 and photographs dated 1974 showed him and Lang together at Cambridge. Ewan’s theory, after a discussion with another man who is Lang’s de facto political nemesis, is that Lang was set up to be the Prime Minister by the CIA. Everything Lang has done has been in line with American interests.
Ewan also discovers that McAra leaked the information that tied Lang to specific uses of torture, leading to the criminal charges. This may have been what cost McAra his life. After this discussion, Ewan is picked up by Lang’s private jet where he confronts him about what he’s learned, stating his theory that Emmett worked for the CIA. Lang laughs this off, and upon landing he is assassinated by a former military man whose son died in a war Lang started. This man has been vocal about his hatred for Lang right alongside a group of protestors that had been stationed outside Lang’s Cape Cod home.
Ewan is told to complete the manuscript, and he does. The publishers realize that Lang’s death will have only increased the demand for his memoirs. Ewan finishes the manuscript offscreen, and we jump forward to his invitation to a party celebrating the publication. Once again, the story glosses over the writing part of his job and effectively makes him a detective for most of the story.
After Lang’s assistant says something that catches Ewan’s attention, he pours quickly through the beginnings of each chapter of the book, realizing McAra left a hidden message for him to find. By using the first letter of each chapter, Ewan discovers that ‘Ruth Lang was recruited by the CIA by her professor Paul Emmett.” The CIA did have involvement in Adam Lang’s affairs but it was through his wife, not through Paul Emmett.
Ewan sends a note with this information to Ruth who has an expression of horror. Then Ewan drifts away from the party but then is run over by a speeding car just off screen, killed like his predecessor.
So, at the end this all feels a little silly. It seems a bit absurd that Ruth could be a plant, set up 35+ years earlier, and it’s a little silly that McAra’s hidden message could be found just like any other movie hidden message disguised within a book. It felt fairly predictable that, were there to be a secret message, it would involve the first word of every chapter. The end of this movie was a little rushed through, and I don’t completely buy the plausibility of two ghost writers being killed off for learning what they did.
Maybe it’s because of our current president, and hell, it probably is. I’m already desensitized to political tampering, so when the big revelation is that the U.S. tampered with Britain’s politics, I thought ‘so what?’ It didn’t feel like that would be something to kill over. But maybe if I saw this 6 years ago I would buy the legitimacy of the threat of Ewan’s knowledge, and I probably did buy it when I first saw it because I remember loving this movie.
I still thoroughly enjoy this movie, but it all feels a little absurd and playful despite appearing at first to be intense, dark and gritty. I suppose you could attribute that to Ewan’s own perspective. He’s not a detective, so to him this is all foreign and funny. The security at Lang’s home feels over the top, and Ewan isn’t afraid to tell Lang that people hate him. Ewan just doesn’t understand the world he’s in, and neither do we. That means Ewan and the audience don’t feel that darkness and claustrophobia that the other characters feel. If Ewan was actually a detective, he might approach the situation with more seriousness, and the movie would reflect that.
Near the end, Ewan does begin to fear for his life, shown through an entertaining chase sequence in which he gets on the ferry, sees his followers and believes they’ll kill him, then jumps off the ferry at the last minute. But when Ewan does realize the danger he’s in, the film maintains the same perspective so that to the audience it’s still playful even if it no longer is to Ewan. Or maybe that’s all just because of the music. To me the music was like a person winking at you saying “can you believe this shitstorm he’s in?” from a safe vantage point. In contrast, a film like Schindler’s List is like someone whispering to you “can you believe this shitstorm we’re in?”
The final shot of the movie is pretty striking. Ewan walks offscreen, then we see a car speed up, the engine roaring, and it hits him offscreen. We see the reaction of the people nearby, and the papers from Ewan’s manuscript float down the street, ignored by everyone. It’s like Ewan himself was composed of the manuscript pages and instead of the bloody mess he probably became, he suddenly burst into paper. It helped seal the image of him as a ghost, someone whose death will go unnoticed in terms of its connection to Lang and the CIA.