A ghost appears out of the darkness in a crucial scene towards the end of Match Point, and confronts a murderer. The audience expects the ghost to point a finger and issue some kind of ominous, Hamlet-like condemnation from beyond the grave. But instead, the spirit starts to point out that the murderer must have slipped up somewhere. Mistakes must have been made. Somehow, he's going to get caught. That's when we see that this is all an internal monologue in the mind of the murderer. He is incapable of empathy; even the ghosts that visit him are denied a voice of their own. They are just spectral projections of his own fear and vanity, shining in the dark. There's no room in his mind for anyone but himself. Match Point is Woody Allen's 30 or 40th film and his most successful attempt at a straight philosophical proof since 1989's Crimes and Misdemeanors. Even adding in all the comedies, this is one that he'll be remembered for.
There will be many comparisons between Misdemeanors and Match Point. The earlier film had Martin Landau as a man whose prosperity is threatened by an uncontrollable woman with whom he has an affair. She has the goods on him and could bring his swanky life crashing down with a few phone calls. After much soul-searching, Landau's character finally exclaims "God is a luxury I can't afford" and decides to have her squashed. Being good wasn't so important to him after all, it turns out. The same formula is laid out in Match Point, with a few minor substitutions. This time the protagonist is a working-class kid who dreams of living the good life. Luxury is the luxury he can't afford, not God. The questions of how to secure luxury and keep it plague his deepest thoughts.
The film begins in a hurry - Woody is now 70 years old, and he tends to get to the point. The opening credits snap by and the key characters introduce themselves with a few well-chosen words that will allow the audience to type them. "Who's my next victim?" Scarlett Johansson purrs as she first meets the tennis instructor Chris, played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. "I'll take you to all the good places" is how Emily Mortimer's matronly rich girl character greets him. The writing here is not lazy, but it's deliberately brisk. These characters are not deserving of a complicated exposition; they are maddeningly average. They read Penguin editions of the classics, to show us a yawning attempt at self-education. Johansson - her skin still shining from whatever laminating machine she was put through for The Island - occupies a tiny London apartment where she keeps knick-knacks including a giant wooden 'N' that signifies her name, Nona; exactly the kind of meaningless gimcrackery that must clutter the bedroom of every cheerleader in the Midwestern U.S.
The original script for the film was set in the Hamptons, but the kind of uber-tony wealth on display here wears better on the English; there's also more of a ready-made division between classes that the director can exploit. As the story opens, Chris takes on a Tory toff named Tom (Matthew Goode) as a tennis student and the two become fast friends with similar interests - one wants to maintain a lofty position in life and the other wants to gain it. Chris is smart enough to close his nose to the faintly insulting way that he's referred to as "Irish" by Tom and he is soon ushered into the warm bosom of a family that has apartments overlooking the Thames and landed estates that can accommodate Rules of the Game-style hunting parties. By page ten or fifteen of the script, Chris is under the thumb of a suspicious wife, a needy mistress, nosy friends and a powerful father-in-law (Brian Cox) who has supplied him with a high-paying job that he could snatch back at will.
The main characters talk to each other snappishly, at cross-purposes, either digging for information or working to sway each other to their point of view. It's the kind of dialogue you might expect in a thriller. But there's a layer underneath the banter and manipulation that rises slowly to the surface. Verdi operas such as Otello and Il Trovatore begin to permeate nearly every other scene in the film, even though the characters talk over them or ignore them. A key decision is made at an art gallery, as a character unknowingly stands in front of an abstract painting of a man with his neck bent, as by a noose. We begin to sense a substratum of message hanging heavy in the film, with music and visual choices suggesting and articulating what the characters can't.
The message comes closest to the foreground during a dinner scene; conventional religion is discussed with an air of disdain. Jokes are made. Someone exclaims that "faith is the path of least resistance," implying that the homework that comes with moral choice is only avoided by turning to religious fairy tales. Nothing else but the corporeal should matter to the sophisticated intellect. Only random marbles rolling around the universe. This may be the view held by the notoriously skeptical Woody Allen too, but he's wary of the ease with which materialists may throw out the baby with the moral bathwater. Free of religious convictions, they may be left with no convictions. The director allows a quality of anomie to infect the film; a sinking feeling that perhaps the main character has no grounding of conscience whatsoever, and is freer of moral turbulence than he has any right to be. As the story proceeds on, this intuition is borne out.
It's not giving anything away to say that there will be a murder in the course of things, but whether or not the murderer is caught will depend on whether he is tripped up by chance, not moral shortcomings - they are a deliberate non-factor. He doesn't want to deal with them, and so we must put them aside. If he is caught, his punishment will amount to a lifetime of boredom in prison, nothing more. There's no need for any Double Indemnity moment of striking a final match for the villain's cigarette, to indicate where he is headed after he dies. What could be more middle-class? If, on the other hand, he is not caught, his lightly-felt guilt will ebb away and he will continue to drift through a life of luxury, popping tennis balls back and forth at his palatial estate in the English countryside. Back and forth, back and forth. Which way will fate decide? By the end of the film, we are more able to absorb the voice-over that began it: "The man who said 'I'd rather be lucky than good' saw deeply into life."