Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: As we roll out our picks for the best films of the decade so far, several A.V. Club writers stump for favorites that didn’t make the list.
In The Ghost Writer, a shot of a gardener futilely gathering leaves on a windy day becomes a wry emblem of the director’s worldview: There are storm clouds coming and we’re all of us caught in the crosswinds. It’s also a clever callback to a similar image in Chinatown, and make no mistake, this underestimated airport paperback adaptation is not only the best conspiracy thriller directed by Roman Polanski since the early 1970s, but also one of his greatest works, full stop. As the nameless hack assigned to churn out the official autobiography of an unscrupulous former British prime minister—the previous chronicler died under mysterious circumstances—Ewan McGregor has the watchful anxiety of a lamb being led to slaughter. And the film surrounds him with a menagerie of wonderfully predatory possible villains; best in show are Tom Wilkinson as a veiled Dick Cheney, and Olivia Williams, doing a brittle Lady Macbeth riff.
The most dexterous performance, though, is given by Polanski, who makes almost every shot in the film funny or creepy or both. A notice posted on a ferry deck reading “Did you see anything suspicious?” instructs viewers to scan the deep-focus compositions for telling details, of which there are plenty. The production design is sublime: The whole middle of the film takes place in a steel-and-glass beach house being used as the ex-PM’s base of operations, and the massive windows in every room become a visual joke on the idea of transparency.
Beneath its gleaming surfaces, the film is a potent allegory about the impersonality of mass-produced pop culture—McGregor’s ghost writer doesn’t even get invited to his own book launch—that then doubles and triples as an Iraq War satire (the story’s loose ends all tie up in a weapons-manufacturing corporate monolith called “Hatherton” with its logo of arms greedily encircling the globe) and as a work of veiled personal filmmaking. When (pitch-perfect) Pierce Brosnan’s harried character rails about being placed under house arrest, it evokes Polanski’s own entrapment in Switzerland during the production. (The gag is that the U.S. is the only country that’ll protect him from extradition.) Despite being set largely in New England, the film was shot in Europe, which gives certain scenes an Eyes Wide Shut vibe—an effectively ersatz quality for a story filled with acts of fabrication. The Ghost Writer is the sort of witty, disciplined genre piece that’s a lot tougher to pull off than it looks, or else everybody would do it all the time. But Polanski makes it seem effortless. His pot boileth over.
Availability: The Ghost Writer is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital outlets.