The Ghost Writer (The Cornfield #11)

The Ghost Writer provides an abundance of the pleasures of a well-made picture on first viewing, but watching it a second time allows for new sorts of appreciation. Because the second time you know who’s-behind-what-and-why. So, a few things to apprehend about a movie I didn’t review when it opened:

Interiors: Impeccable rooms that speak of privilege – fine wood grain, and beautiful drinking glasses, and rare Scotch in thick bottles, and floor-to-ceiling windows affording views of the beach. This is beyond nice art direction: this is an all-encompassing system that constantly reminds the ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) that he is out of his league. Or it should, anyway; so much of the time he doesn’t really notice. Even the interiors of the cars seem brand-new, immaculate, “designed” by a larger system beyond the ghost’s imagination. The car of his dead predecessor speaks to him through its programmed navigation, which he can’t resist following.

Actor: The unnamed ghost writer can’t really be played by a big star; it would tip the scales in a wrong direction. Hitchcock complained about getting stuck with end-of-the-benchers such as Robert Cummings and Farley Granger, but sometimes those types strike just the right note. The story of The Ghost Writer may be Hitchcockian, but this property shouldn’t have a Cary Grant or James Stewart in the lead – it needs a second-tier guy, someone who wouldn’t outshine an ex-James Bond. Which is why Ewan McGregor is just right, and why a real Now star, such as DiCaprio or Depp, would have been wrong. Good actor, hasn’t exactly made the A-list, has the ability to look a little overwhelmed by things, maybe not quite as smart as he thinks. So Pierce Brosnan and Olivia Williams and Kim Cattrall can push him around, and we buy it.

In the background: In Roman Polanski’s scheme for the movie, you are reminded that things in the background might play important roles, so that by the time Brosnan’s politico arrives at a small airport, you might notice a man on a roof in the far distance. And in the ex-prime minister’s office on the beach, through that IMAX-like window on the dunes, a man can be seen sweeping the sand off the porch – sweeping sand at the beach. It’s a little callback to Polanski’s earliest short films, a vignette that distills absurdity in a funny, disturbing way. (I sort of wish this handyman hadn’t, in a followup scene, thrown down his broom in disgust at the impossibility of collecting sand in a place where the wind never stops blowing – there’s something dreamier about him just keeping on.)

Timing: Polanski is a master of classical rhythm, so the film unfolds at a pace that is beautifully judged. So sure is the metronome that you can overlook the suspicion that the actual clues that lead the ghost to his conclusions would surely have been discovered many years earlier by even a stupid journalist asking a few questions. (When a two-second Google search offers a giant revelation, the plotting might be somewhat thin.) But with Polanski giving the sure-handed navigational instructions, like that calm voice coming from the dashboard, the movie is a tonic in the midst of over-heated “thrillers” that populate the multiplex circa 2010.