I was trying to figure out why this film was so much more tense than say something like "Taken" (2008), which has lots of action and very high stakes, but didn't get to me like the Polanski film did. I believe it's a result of three things: Camera placement, length of shots, and editing. Perhaps I'd add Polanski himself, because you are never really sure about the route he takes you on, though they tend to climax in a downer.
In this regard, even though I could see where the film was going, generally, I couldn't grasp exactly who was behind the mystery and how many people were involved. Because of this, I didn't know who to trust. I only knew Ewan McGregor's character wasn't involved, but he wasn't too smart either, so this added to the tension.
Like the scene on the ferry, where McGregor finds himself cornered with two hit men after him, the tension was ramped high because of the filmic techniques I previously described. Also, McGregor's character kept making silly mistakes, revealing far too much about what his intentions were to the wrong people, so anyone, including the maid, could not be taken for granted as trustworthy. This kept things on edge, whereas in "Taken," after about 10 minutes it becomes clear who the bad guys and the good guys are. And the cuts in "Taken" come fast and furious, so by contrast, when you need things to speed up, there's nowhere to go. In "The Ghost Writer," when the pace increases, we notice, because the quick cuts come in sharp contrast to what we had gotten used to.
This movie had parallels to "Chinatown" in terms of it's unraveling mystery and political corruption; to "Frantic" in terms of someone out of his element; and to "The Ninth Gate," in that the detective work involved a book. As well, the reoccurring theme of the "predecessor" that shows up in so many of Polanski's movies, "The Tenant," being the best example, with its main character, a new tenant, finding himself under the same influence that drove the previous tenant insane.
And of course, water plays an important role, as it did in the director's previous "Knife in the Water," "Cul de Sac," "Macbeth," and "Chinatown." It's almost always a negative driving force, with the exception being "Frantic," where the "maguffin" is destroyed by water, a curious world savior. Not so, in "The Ghost Writer." Water only adds to the dark tone, and emphasizes the conspiratorial weight pounding down on McGregor.
Where this film seems to differ from previous work by this director, is the bold-faced international political stance he takes. Clearly, Polanski and the writer of the novel, Robert Harris, have strong feelings about the direction world governments are taking. The same could be said about "Chinatown," and perhaps in a simpler way, "Frantic," with its anti-nuke point of view at the end. But with "The Ghost Writer," Polanski grabs the political direction of world leaders by the horns and runs with them. The outlook is bleak.
Polanski's modus operandi has never been to tie things up neatly with a happy ending. He's always felt that people aren't motivated to do anything about an issue if the ending is happy. He leaves audiences with their stomachs torn out, saying essentially, "Yes, things are this bad, yes they are. Start thinking about why."
Polanski seems to be borrowing from himself more than usual with this film. I found the dependency on the high tech, which began in "Frantic," and was expanded in Johnny Depp's detective work in "The Ninth Gate," used to an even greater extent in "The Ghost Writer." Cell phones, GPS systems, computers, the media, all play important roles in furthering the plot.
The scene where McGregor leaves Tom Wilkinson's character's (Paul Emmett) house to find a car waiting for him, likely intending to follow and kill him, was created almost identically, in smaller form, in "The Ninth Gate," when Depp leaves the estate of the man who owns the second book Depp was researching. A car waits for Depp just outside the gates and tries to run him down. Polanski even staged it the same way in "The Ghost Writer," except extends the chase to the ferry, surpassing the tension of the earlier film immeasurably.
I'm looking forward to seeing this film again. I'm sure there's much more to uncover.
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