Roman Polanski reaffirms his status as a sure-handed and formidable classical filmmaker with The Ghost Writer, which exhibits the compositional élan and deliberate pacing he's settled into after numerous high-profile cinematic experimentations, provocations, and confrontations. His new film is ostensibly about the personal-is-geopolitical intrigues that envelop a hack writer enlisted to improve the memoirs of a rakish British prime minister holed up on a Massachusetts island (a mercurial, unpredictable, wounded Pierce Brosnan), but the story keeps sucking up scraps related to terrorism, conspiracy theories, and the market for celebrity autobiographies while spitting out seeds from the side of its mouth about Polanski's own controversial status as genius-in-exile.
The Ghost Writer's chase sequences and interrogations are more tart and suspenseful than most quickly paced, quickly cut thrillers because of the fearful bewilderment of "the Ghost" himself, skillfully played by Ewan McGregor. In an almost subliminal touch, McGregor's memoir doctor in the film is never named, which implies that he's not sure who he is — and further hints that his disappearance could not possibly disrupt any old or new world orders. This nothingman is no match for the powerful political, academic, and business figures who repeatedly put him in his place. Everyone the Ghost sees seems to take perverse pleasure in yanking him around like a dumb puppy on a short leash.
Olivia Williams, who plays the exiled prime minister's coolly intelligent wife, has a solo dinner and drinks tête-à-tête with McGregor where she verbally castrates him via some cutting, defensive remarks about his lame job. After a scene that transforms GPS technology into a quietly unnerving form of play-by-play commentary, Tom Wilkinson essays the kind of continental snobbery seldom developed or even evinced in the weirdly upper-middle-class world of American films. Even Jim Belushi, who plays an American publishing bigwig who could be a descendant of Colonel Kurtz, blusters mightily and convincingly for a scene.
The film's sudden sparks of humor are as unsettling and refreshing as the performers. Shortly after her caustic dinner exchange with McGregor, Williams invades his bed, pausing for a comic beat or two before rolling over on top of him with the suddenness of a burning log shifting in a campfire pit. One of the best jokes comes near the end, when the talons of potential conspirators are longer and sharper than ever. Another shady power player kidnaps McGregor and assures him that he will not be drowned like the prime minister's previous ghost writer because "you're not like kittens!"
Polanski's absurdist worldview and his expert filmmaking technique converge in the two scenes that bookend the film. The first scene pivots on an abandoned automobile and exhales a damp, gray breath of unease that permeates every living space and shot in the film. The economical, wildly satisfying final shot enlists scattered objects, a slow procession of characters gingerly stepping off-screen, and a hint of an uncomfortable truth just out of reach (which was used so effectively during an early scene in Polanski's Rosemary's Baby dominated by a half-open door) to slam this peculiar case shut.