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The Ghost in the Machine

By Brian Prisco | Film | February 23, 2010 |

By Brian Prisco | Film | February 23, 2010 |

Hey, lookit that giant motherfucking elephant just sitting in the room, shitting in the corner, making a big ol’ stink. It is literally impossible for me to review this film objectively. Because no matter how good or bad it is, it’s going to be overshadowed by director Roman Polanski’s exploits. The merits of his artistry will forever be skewed — either tainted for those who eternally chant “Roman e Rapist” or the sycophants who feel necessary to bolster their appreciation as if touting praise for his work somehow defends him. Allegations of kiddie-diddling aside, Roman Polanski is simply a phenomenal director — imbuing all of his work with signature attitude, concussively mordant finales, and jarring wit. But we can’t put the allegations aside, because that’s how society works. Our history is resplendent with luminaries who have committed sins that forever mar their reputations, be they golden-showering rap stars, car-murderin’ first ladies, or dog fighting quarterbacks. We will never separate them from their work or deeds. I’m not going to even attempt to admonish you for what’s going to happen in the commentary on this article because the majority of you won’t even get the opportunity to ignore this movie and so will merely judge based on the fact that Roman Polanski supposedly committed a most grievous sin. If you want to be angry, that’s your right. I’ve got no business telling you not to hate someone based on prejudice. It’s why I’ve never seen a single minute of any Rush Hour flick.

The Ghost Writer is a low-impact thriller that wouldn’t be out of place on PBS or even a West End 99-seater. Instead of relying on massive car chases or shadowy men with sunglasses and black leather coats stalking our hero through footraces in towns with statuary and fountains, the film does what all excellent mysteries should do. It quietly gets on with the business while uncomfortably settling beneath you and itching at your brain. Polanski and Robert Harris — adapting the screenplay from his own novel — create a taut political espionage in whispers, ponderously letting the audience mire in serious unease as we watch our hero, The Ghost (Ewan McGregor), stumble about like an actor in the wrong play. There are murders and there are gunshots and car chases, illicit sex, and underhanded double-dealing, but it’s all done with such exquisite control and restraint. It’s a Bourne movie without ass-kicking, a Bond without flash and winks, and yet still manages to be thought provoking and entertaining. The only flaw was that Polanski was beholden to his own auteurishness, and so his conventions force his hand into making a Polanski flourish at the end. Instead of the awful gut punch you would expect from the man who gave us Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, you get sort of a burbled hiccup like a bit of undigested potato.

Former Prime Minister Alan Lang (Pierce Brosnan) has fled to the isolation of the bays of Massachusetts to assemble his memoirs. His longtime collaborator mysteriously washes up drunk and drowned onshore, and so the publishers and his cronies scramble to bring in a new ghostwriter. Enter The Ghost, who is never named throughout the picture, a gun-for-hire scribbler who takes the voice of his subject and makes it interesting. As he digs deeper into this story, the events unravel like a BBC miniseries, with secretarial mistresses, an intelligent wife being shunted aside, political scandal tearing the fabric of their happy lives. What could have easily been stock drama is cleverly played out, with the help of brilliant satire and some simply rock-solid performances. There is no showboating moment, no grand Shakespearean king clutching the goblet soliloquy. We simply watch a man entirely out of his element flounder and drown.

What helps to elevate the picture is that Polanski is so deft at creating the atmosphere and tone of his flick. There’s probably a lot going on that the film degree in me can’t help but acknowledge. It’s a chilly film — with every scene dark and drab and sodden and depressed. Rain has second billing in the flick, either scouring the barren New England landscape or laying strewn in black puddles. I don’t know if this is sort of a clever jab at American filmmakers’ tendencies to treat most of Europe, particularly London, with rainy disdain, but it covers the entire film with a shroud of mourning.

I know nothing about British political history, but if this is a commentary on Tony Blair, it’s quite literally a steel-toed kick in the trousers. Brosnan’s Lang is accused of crimes against humanity for his supposed involvement with the U.S. government in capturing four Al Qaeda extremists and torturing them in a secret CIA stronghold. The film alludes to Lang being nothing more than a pocket politician at the beck and call of the U.S. Lang’s self-imposed exile to a desolate New England island may even be because the U.S. is one of the few nations in the world that doesn’t recognize the jurisdiction of the Hague. Again, whether this is a dig at the U.S. in general, or specifically at the people who are demanding Polanski’s extradition to answer for his own crimes, I can’t say, but it’s still a fucking ballsier proposition than when I thought Polanski was remaking the late nineties PBS children’s show about the ghost-aided, mystery-solving kids. Particularly considering that Lang is more than likely guilty as sin.

Realizing that anyone who even murmurs support for Polanski is pretty hardcore fucked in the eyes of the outraged, the actors decided to act the motherfucking shit out of their parts. Don’t call it a comeback, Ewan McGregor’s not been a Jedi for years, but he’s finally starting to make headway on the promise of his early Danny Boyle work. His ghostwriter is delightfully pompous and snotty, sort of like the haute couture version of his TMZ counterparts. Pierce Brosnan is having a hell of a stretch lately on acting gigs, and his Lang is a wonderful mix of irascibility and schmooz. Thank Christ he never fell into the slippery post-Bond slope of his predecessors. Olivia Williams, the secret desire of any red-blooded male who’s seen Rushmore in his formative years, is fiercely setting the tent stakes to show that once the Redgraves and Mirrens shuffle off this mortal coil, she’ll be pleased as a steel gauntleted punch to step in. I got no beef against Kim Cattrall, but in this company she felt like the weak link. When Polanski’s able to pull the likes of Tom Wilkinson, the continually solid Timothy Hutton, and the staggeringly awesome Eli Wallach for bit parts, she’s just going to seem all Donny up in this piece — out of her fucking element. I’m not familiar with Jon Bernthal’s work, but he’s quite good as the exuberant agent to McGregor’s ghost. And I saved the stunner for last — Jim Motherfucking Belushi killing, just FUCKING KILLING, as John Maddox, the bull-necked American owner of the publishing firm. With a freshly shorn dome and that pug-ugly mug, he’s kind of got a thuggish Gandolfini in the good years vibe going, and I’m gonna give him the Tim Allen in Redbelt props he deserves. If this is what he wants to do to wash that taste of “According to Jim” out of our collective cerebra, I say, scrub away, my man, scrub away.

But none of that matters, does it? The Ghost Writer is a solid, dare I even say Alfred Hitchcock Presents quality piece of entertainment, a biting commentary on politics. It takes razor slashes at the U.S., albeit with less finesse than In The Loop, but still, for something as understated and ponderous, they read like old school Nintendo Tyson-grade jaw socks. And yet, nobody’s going to read between the lines, because Teen Rape Squad helmed the camera. Even more strange is that it appears to have been “mothertrucking” edited down to PG-13 by swapping f-missiles for Brit idioms like “sodding” and “bloody.” A bigger marketing block than the R rating is the pending massive jail sentence against the director. I’m not that enamored with the final product like some of my contemporaries to bother to forshame you if you want to hate him. That’s your business. Polanski’s is making movies, and he’s still got game.