Ghost Writer opens Friday in select theaters

Roman Polanski’s Ghost Writer is a snappy thriller about a writer-for-hire (Ewan McGregor) from London sent to a small out-of-season resort town in the northeastern U.S. to revise the memoir of a former British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan). While McGregor’s character is the one credited as The Ghost, it’s the recently deceased writer of the memoir’s first draft, Mike McAra, who haunts the story.

After the suspicious conditions of McAra’s death are relayed in a brilliant opening sequence, it soon becomes apparent that McGregor’s character could come to a similar end. But even with the fatalistic overtones, the proceedings are never too grim, thanks in no small part to the jaunty score and the collaboration between McGregor and Polanski, both of whom are able to make a scene tense and humorous at the same time.

Admittedly, Ghost Writer goes from feeling like the most promising narrative in recent memory for the first half hour to an overly familiar political paranoia story by its last act. But it doesn’t matter. Sharp performances from Tom Wilkinson and Olivia Williams, in addition to a fascinating turn from Kim Cattrall, keep things moving when the plot sags. But before any of these actors have come onscreen, a bald and bullish James Belushi (!) turns in a first-round knockout cameo as McGregor’s new boss. At the center of the action, McGregor makes his incorrigible smartass of a character into a winsome charmer, and his light-footed performance is a delight.

But the real star hereand the reason the diminishing returns of the film’s narrative are irrelevantis Polanski, returning to his revisionist take on the lone wolf. Polanski inverts the typical movie trope in which the man standing alone must be the toughest in the film, or even the one driving the action. In movies like The Tenant, Frantic and the criminally underrated Ninth Gate, Polanski’s heroes are loners by predicament, and they don’t drive the action but are acted upon. They do their best to react to unusual events, with varying degrees of success. Polanski uses the vehicle of the mystery thriller to probe human fragility, employing the genre not to champion the loner but to convey the confusion and sadness of loneliness.

While examining his characters’ fragility, Polanski has an awful lot of fun. Ghost Writer is filled with little jokes (the silly costume worn by an inn clerk, McGregor smelling the hat he borrows from a servant before putting it on) and clever lighting, composition and editing. Shortly after arriving in town, McGregor is forced out of the inn where he is staying and is put up at the beach house with the prime minister and his staff, staying in the room where McAra lived. When he is shown his new quarters, the room is left dark for a few extra beats, suggesting that this new habitat doesn’t hold a bright future. Abstract paintings decorate the room, suggesting bloody claw marks left by the room’s last occupant. Polanski never foregrounds the paintings; in fact, he abstracts the abstractions, keeping them in the background and cutting them in half with the edge of the frame, a subtle decision that makes the paintings even more unsettling.

Polanksi uses a restless camera, longer-than-average takes and frequent close-ups to immerse his audience in talky scenes that might otherwise lose energy. A windblown evening scene on the beach that is filled with obligatory exposition is made riveting by his use of these classic techniques. No, the story doesn’t always hold up, but not even the script’s lazy conclusion can obviate the stunning, exhilarating and bold final shot of the film. Ghost Writer is better than a perfectly told story; rather, it’s a film with a unique feel and voice made with penetrating intelligence and precise technique. It’s better than a masterpiece; it’s a film by Roman Polanski.