Where a thriller like Shutter Island leaves audiences with a minimum of possible explanations, The Ghost Writer isn't nearly as clear cut. Screenwriters Robert Harris (adapting his novel) and Roman Polanski withhold considerable information from the audience's surrogate, the unnamed ghost writer played by Ewan McGregor. The film's mysteries and conspiracies resemble a puzzle with missing pieces, and figuring them out amounts to reviewing what we know, and when we know it.
1. Before diving into the spoilers, Is The Ghost Writer a Roman Polanski apologia? Unlikely. In the film, English ex-Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) faces disgrace and a public outcry due to the international court's accusation of war crimes. The director occupies a similar position as a celebrity sex offender, surrounded by paparazzi, with limits on his international travel. An angry father serves as a recurring, accusatory figure, but it's hard to connect the Lang role to the Polanski case, especially given that the Lang character avoids the subject of his misdeeds, whether to admit culpability or make justifications. It's interesting that Polanski includes a shot of Lang looking at the ocean while leaning against a window, as if about to be frisked.
2. What's the most obvious explanation of what happened? The Ghost Writer's big reveal turns out to be even cornier than Shutter Island's anagrams: Mike McAra, McGregor's deceased predecessor, left clues in the first word of each chapter of Lang's memoirs that claimed that Lang's wife Ruth was a CIA operative ever since they met. Presumably Ruth nudged her husband into politics -- Lang refers to her as his most trusted adviser --and could have prompted him to make decisions in the U.S. interests at every opportunity. McAra was killed to silence him, and McGregor's character was presumably killed off-camera in the film's final shot.
3. Were the ghost writers really murdered? By keeping so much of the violence out of sight, The Ghost Writer leaves questions of culpability tantalizingly vague. According to Eli Wallach's crusty witness, McAra's body, which either fell or was thrown off the ferry, should not have washed up where it did, and another witness (now comatose) claimed to have seen mysterious figures with flashlights that night. So someone could have kidnapped McAra from the ferry (or elsewhere) and left him on the beach, which seems unnecessarily contrived. We can only assume McGregor was fatally hit by a car in the final shot -- we hear the sounds of an accident, and see manuscript papers scattered to the winds - but it could've been an accident, or not even lethal. But the only crime we definitely see, apart from Lang's assassination, is McGregor's mugging.
4. Why did McAra visit Emmet before his death? The ghost writer discovers, thanks to a convenient GPS memory in McAra's car, that his predecessor visited professor Paul Emmet (Tom Wilkinson) as his "final destination" before falling/being pushed off the ferry. The ghostwriter retraces McAra's paper/Internet trail that Emmet was a CIA operative who recruited at least one of the Langs. But McAra already knew Emmet's connection to Ruth: he presumably put the clues in the chapters well before his death. So did he actually see Emmet on his last day alive? If so, why?
4. What do the Langs know? Adam Lang has only a few scenes in the movie, and he scoffs at the ghost writer's accusation that Paul Emmet recruited the future politician as a member of the CIA. He could be lying, he could be innocent or he could know that he's not in the CIA, but that his wife was: that could have been the subject of his argument with McAra before McAra's death. Ruth proves a brooding, brittle figure throughout the film, and seems initially upset at Lang's political misfortunes, then enraged at her husband for having an affair with the Kim Cattrall character. But does she have a guilty conscience? Does she know of McAra's accusations? Does she blame herself for McAra's death? Did it happen at her orders? And could she have slept with McGregor's character to misdirect him from the same revelation?
5. Was Lang's murder part of the conspiracy? Lang is killed by a British military veteran outraged at his son's death in "Lang's war," and is presented as a lone gunman type. Could he be in actuality a government hit man intended to silence Lang for reasons that the ghost writer never knows? We don't know, but the timing's certainly suspicious, isn't it?
6. Is there even a conspiracy? Is it possible that McAra and McGregor's character are following a wild goose chase? That both of their deaths are accidents, and that Emmett, however suspicious he may seem, has no covert connection to the Langs? Mysterious goons follow the ghost writer, who ditches a pair of suspicious customers on the ferry, but we don't really know their intentions. When McGregor's character confronts Lang with his theory, he says of one of his facts, "It's on the Internet!" which isn't exactly ironclad evidence.
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