There are times I bemoan the lack of quiet, intelligent thrillers and the seeming surplus of the often more vacuous and noisy “action” thrillers.
But that’s not to say there aren’t quiet, intelligent thrillers out there.
Director Roman Polanski (no stranger to controversy) has released some intelligent thrillers in his time, and The Ghost Writer is certainly a good -though ultimately, and unfortunately, not great– example of the same.
The story involves “the Ghost” (Ewan McGregor), a mild mannered writer who is hired to polish and finish a manuscript/autobiography “written” by former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan in what amounts to an extended cameo playing a character suspiciously similar to Tony Blair). The ghost writer who did all the work until now, we find in the movie’s opening scenes, drowned.
So Ewan McGregor’s “Ghost” takes the well paying -but very tight deadline- job and, after flying to the United States and entering the bunker used by Lang and his entourage, barely gets to work before finding himself in the middle of an international maelstrom. Adam Lang, you see, has been called out by his one-time ally as having engaged in complicity to use torture to pursue terrorists. Soon there is the very real possibility that Lang may be dragged before the World Court for his actions while serving as Prime Minister. And, to make matters worse, the “Ghost” begins to suspect the manuscript’s original writer’s death by drowning was no accident.
Will this “Ghost Writer” wind up like his predecessor?
Though it is a thriller, the first half or so of the film slowly builds tension while offering plenty of black comedy. The “Ghost” finds the world of Adam Lang is a maze and its hard to tell the motivations of those around him…not to mention what exactly goes on in the mind of Lang himself. In time, the “Ghost” begins to see his way through the secrets while tension builds.
Unfortunately, as good as the first half to two thirds of the film is, the movie unfortunately began to lose steam. It’s hard to pinpoint where this happened, but as we headed toward the climax and conclusion, the carefully built tension dissipated. By the time we reached the movie’s climax and ultimate conclusion, the movie fell again, presenting some rather large plot holes that rendered much of what we experienced up until this point confusing and, worse, pointless.
Again, without giving away too much, the audience is expected to accept the fact that a large conspiracy initiated by very powerful political figures is behind some of the mystery in the film…and yet these incredibly powerful political figures aren’t powerful enough to get a ghost writer who is a puppet to their cause to fix Lang’s manuscript rather than bringing in an innocent who may just expose this conspiracy?
Indeed, the ending had me scratching my head so much, especially considering the cleverness of the story up until that point, that I wondered if maybe there were some cut scenes or explanation in the script that was not filmed that accounted for these plot holes. Suffice to say there is a point in the film where it seems the “Ghost” and Lang are about to have a heart to heart talk and we might finally get some idea of what’s going on…and how much Lang actually knows. Ultimately, that talk never happens.
And yet, in spite of these complaints, I can’t entirely dismiss The Ghost Writer. For long stretches of time the movie is quite entertaining even if, in the end, it does stumble.