There seems to be a weighted significance in every shot of The Ghost, albeit a mundane significance in most; a glance at a page, a turn of a tap, the ex-Prime Minister resting his hands on a full-wall window. There is not a wasted shot, but, then again, it could easily have shed many of them. It’s a paradox vital to the decent mystery thriller. One is uncertain of the unrest – the mysterious mood and the cause itself – so every element is granted a lingering suspicion. Some objects fade in the narrative. Others drop out to return at a pivotal plot reveal much later, almost cathartic in its recognition and the pursuing uttering of “Of course” to oneself in the theatre’s night. There is a wonderment of companionship when the character on-screen realises something the very moment you do; mouth agape, important document dropped to floor, popcorn missing the mouth to collect in the lap’s rubbish tip.
It is a restrained film in its editing and pace. And hardly any violence depicted at all. Then why is there such foreboding? Alexandre Desplat’s score (flickering between a Christmassy enchantment and booming threat) is too inconsistent and sometimes invasive to warrant for much. The film’s stormy weather is effective, but often blows into cliché. It lies in the traces of violence and perversity left in each scene.
Pulsing lights are frequent; warning lights on the back of a ship, outside an estate’s entrance gate, the beating illumination of a ringing mobile phone, the island’s lighthouse. The set design is also important. Adam Lang, the ex-Prime Minister, decorates his house with a series of nightmarish paintings. Red is persistent, in an introspective Rothko way, and is scattered in violently in them. As though the war crimes Lang is accused of took place in his very house, so complacent in his position, or maybe, so haunted by his decision, they are left there scarring the walls.
However, it is in the dialogue and actors where the tangible menace most evidently lies. They issue their threats in the most disguised form – plain delivery! When Ghost (Ewan McGregor’s ‘ghost writer’ is never given a name) boards Lang’s plane, he remarks that this is the first time he has flown on a private jet. “Let’s hope it’s not your last”, replies Lang’s assistant, Amelia Bly. Said in such a discarded, sarcastic way, as so often happens in reality, becomes a snarling threat – given emphasis by the suspicion and paranoia compounded beforehand. As I noted before, the pace is restrained, but in the way a rabid dog is restrained; forcing its way closer and closer, bearing its teeth and tongue, back paws pushing the earth aside – but always inches away. Teeth are bared in these dialogues, enough to remind you of what remains on that leash – and the inevitable knowledge that its handler will hold on for only so long.
For The Ghost is a very entertaining and engrossing thriller. But this is also its main flaw. In its conclusion (which is as redemptive as the final scene in Michael Clayton, oddly enough also starring Tom Wilkinson), it conforms and contorts into all the conventions typical of its genre. The conspiracy theory is revealed. Everything is once again black and white.
This is in opposition to the scenes before it, which pose some interesting questions – questions, might I add, which prompt a response from one, which makes one contemplate. The thriller narrative, of course, doesn’t want to accommodate an ambiguous ending, where one would leave the cinema still contemplating, and instead neatly wraps things up. One question posed, which I found the most intriguing and the film’s greatest moment, arose when Ghost confronted Lang about the conspiracy theory which lay beneath the accusations of war crime. Lang, at its end, is invigorated with anger – not of an arch-villain, but of a real, regretful human being.
He shouts that if he could do it all again, he would make airports have two queues; one with no searches or regulations, with everyone’s liberty and freedom intact; the other controlled strongly, with checks and intelligence sourced from torturing terrorist suspects. Which one then would parents send their children on? he venomously concludes. That he says all this with such passion, yet aware of its own abhorrence, makes one realise that he is much like us. He shares the same disgust of torture tactics, yet has clearly advocated its use. But this has most probably made his country safer. What, then, of us? Of our complicity with this all? The idea that the torture of few for the safety of many is a very uncomfortable truth, and it bursts from almost nowhere in a thriller film which has set Lang up to be a great evil.
Sometimes, when someone is placed in a position of extraordinary power, and makes decisions which impact the lives of many, it is very easy to consider them an embodiment of pure evil. Sometimes they may be right. But most of the time, I expect, and a case made in The Ghost Writer, they are hardly any different from us. As uncomfortable as that may be.