My favorite film this year so far is Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer (224 screens). It has received generally favorable reviews and some respectable box office, but I'm not sure how many people love it the way I do. Speaking to other critics about it, I generally hear complaints about the plot, which comes from a novel by Robert Harris. And there's usually some comment about Polanski's current situation, under house arrest in Switzerland since September 26 of last year, which -- to be frank -- has absolutely nothing to do with the film.
What I love about The Ghost Writer is not necessarily its plot, but the way Polanski zeroes in on the movie's lead character, the unnamed ghost writer played by Ewan McGregor, and uses his visual, physical environment to make things uncomfortable and off-kilter for him. Every frame is set up in such a way to increase paranoia, from big moments like being followed in a car, all the way down to a tiny moment when his bicycle temporarily slips in a gravel driveway; not even his footing is solid.
I like to think of The Ghost Writer today as I would imagine a "routine" movie by Fritz Lang in the 1940s or 1950s. Lang was moderately successful and well-known, but did not receive any serious consideration as an artist during his lifetime. He was probably seen as a has-been, unable to re-create the great masterpieces like Metropolis (1927) and M (1931) from his early days in Germany. Yet he could turn out films like The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945) or The Big Heat (1953). In their time, they seemed like normal thrillers with no real artistic ambition, but today we recognize them as masterpieces because we have been able to see Lang's career arc and personal obsessions in their proper context.
Polanski has been justly rewarded during his lifetime, more so than Lang, including three Oscar nominations (and one win) for Best Director, and it's much easier to see his recurring themes over the course of his films than with Lang; most of them deal with one lone, central figure placed in an unknown, uncertain world of paranoia and fear, perhaps imaginary, perhaps not. When the films are presented as "pure" thrillers, such as The Ghost Writer or The Ninth Gate or The Tenant, people dismiss them as simple entertainments, or lowly genre films. His films must come with either literary or social significance (such as Tess and The Pianist) to earn respect.
In America, we tend not to focus on the artist. We focus instead on the story or the stars, or the box office scores. I don't suppose anything is going to change, but I just hope people can appreciate The Ghost Writer as the masterful thriller it is, despite its plot or its apparent lack of social relevance. Even more importantly, I hope people recognize what a treasure we have in Polanski, a living master who at age 76 is still capable of artistic achievements at the same level of high quality as the films he made in his 20s and 30s.