Monday, March 15, 2010

Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer: Scorsese and Polanski On Top of the World

Ladies and gentlemen, the new decade of cinema has officially opened with the arrival of two great films by two legendary filmmakers. Fate must have had a hand in deciding that Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer premiere, together, in the first few months (and in the same weekend, no less!) in 2010. A good decade of cinema is over. The new one has begun, and it had to begin not with just one smashing directorial comeback, but with two. The last time this exact same phenomenon occured, Gangs of New York and The Pianist were being released in late 2002. Oh, you may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one: Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski are on top of the world. Again.

Now listen carefully. Because both films have basically been reviewed to death (plot summaries and all) since their releases in February, I'm going to strain to talk about the elements in each film that traditional critics were not allowed the creativity and publication space to go in depth over--so this means major spoilers ahead. I strongly recommend that you attend both of these terrific films before reading any further. It would be a true shame if the rare, delicate magic of a Scorsese or Polanski release were ruined because of what I am about to make an attempt to go over.

Curiously, both films begin with the same opening sequence of a ship approaching the mainland. Scorsese opens Shutter Island with a ferry enshrouded in fog and mist, at daytime. Polanski opens The Ghost Writer with a ferry that is traveling at night, but through clear waters. We enter Scorsese's film in a state of bewilderment. Does the ferry know where it's going in all of that fog? We enter Polanski's film in a state of observation. The ferry certainly appears to know where it's going, but why is there a car onboard with no driver inside?

Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer are both conspiracy thrillers. Teddy Daniels will spend the eternity of Scorsese's film in constant fear that the establishment is out to get him. He is wrong. The Ghost will spend the eternity of Polanski's film suspecting the same type of threat. He is right. Shutter Island begins with fog overclouding the ferry because Teddy Daniels is a man going in circles. There is nothing of value for him to find- he is lost in the mist of his subconscious, chasing his own tail. The Ghost Writer, however, does not begin in fog because there is definitely something of value to be found. Once the Ghost thinks that maybe he's onto something, his findings do not disappoint.

The two films are both set in a sort of gray, chilly atmosphere. Whether it be the remote title location off the coast of Boston in Shutter Island, or the rainy Martha's Vineyard in The Ghost Writer, Scorsese and Polanski are electing to drape their films with an ominous romanticism. To call their methods “Hitchcockian” would be appropriate, I guess, although to me that term is so overused it's becoming a cop-out. And to call their methods “Kafkaesque” would just be downright laughable--not least becomes one of the characters in Shutter Island actually uses this term at a key moment. That'll teach those pretentious art students to watch their language.

When one looks at the long list of classic films that Scorsese screened to his actors in preparation for Shutter Island, it's baffling that Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor isn't on the list. Certainly Dennis Lehane must have had Shock Corridor in mind when he was writing up the novel that inspired Scorsese's film: it's another movie about a protagonist who attempts to get to the bottom of an insane asylum mystery, and, in the process, winds up becoming insane himself. Perhaps Scorsese didn't screen Shock Corridor to his cast because he didn't want to try to end up with a film that felt like a clone of Fuller's earlier approach. At any rate, if Shutter Island, thematically, feels closest to Shock Corridor, structurally and emotionally it actually feels closer to something like The Trial. If you think about it, Scorsese's entire output from the past decade has been an effort to replicate Orson Welles' artistic success: Gangs of New York is his Chimes at Midnight; The Aviator is his Mr. Arkadin; The Departed is his Touch of Evil; and No Direction Home was, arguably, his F for Fake. Now here is Shutter Island and, yes, it can be compared to The Trial.

Of all of Polanski's previous films, The Ghost Writer has shades of Knife in the Water (in its allusions to a man fallen overboard, possibly to have drowned), but structurally it shares most in common with The Ninth Gate. Like that film, it is told from the viewpoint of a literary scholar who goes hunting for a buried truth. Also like that film, there are select scenes that share a strange proximity with scenes from Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. You may remember a big fuss that was made over the sequence in The Ninth Gate (released the same year as Kubrick's film) in which Johnny Depp walks into a satanist ceremony much like the orgy ceremony that Tom Cruise crashes in Kubrick's film. In The Ghost Writer, the scene in which the Ghost heads deep into the woods to the mansion of Paul Emmett (Tom Wilkinson) reminds us of the scene in Kubrick's film in which Cruise visits the orgy mansion in the morning afterwards, desperate for more information. But The Ghost Writer is better than The Ninth Gate, not just because it is the more believable film, but because it concludes more satisfyingly. With The Ninth Gate, Polanski left us hanging on an anticlimax, fading to white before the revelation of something that was supposed to be Earth-shattering could even be revealed. At the end of The Ghost Writer, Polanski again fades to white, but this time he at least remembers the punchline. More on that later.

Aside from the parts of the two films that we could only have expected from the two filmmakers, Scorsese and Polanski also try to experiment with political allegories that we never would have dreamed they had any interest in. In Shutter Island, Teddy has flashbacks of liberating a Nazi death camp, and these scenes (which play as a nice contrast to the finale of Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds) are ironic considering that Scorsese was originally supposed to be the director of Schindler's List and- up until this point- has never portrayed the Holocaust onscreen. The Ghost Writer is very clearly a criticism of the administrations of Tony Blair, President Bush and other right-wing, pro-torture government officials (currently in office or not); and because Polanski has never been an inherently political filmmaker, this comes at a surprise. With that being said, the film isn't really a message movie, so perhaps the choice of content is not so bizarre after all.

The supporting casts in both films are inspired. Was it just a coincidence that Scorsese got Ted Levine and John Carroll Lynch to play the wardens of Shutter Island? If you recall, Levine played Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, and Lynch played the prime suspect in Zodiac. Why shouldn't Teddy be afraid of them? They both have histories as serial killers for crying out loud. Furthermore, when we get a glimpse of Elias Koteas as the sinister, cut-faced Andrew Laeddis, we've completely forgotten Koteas as that noble soldier from The Thin Red Line. And where did Polanski, meanwhile, get the bright idea to cast freaking Jim Belushi, everybody's favorite ABC sitcom superstar, as the Ghost's employer?

More strange casting decisions. There is the matter of child stars suddenly out of their element: Jackie Earle Haley, as the vile, abused inmate George Noyce, is a long way away from that bicycling kid we remember from Breaking Away; ditto for Timothy Hutton, who, as the straight-faced Sidney Kroll, is no longer the troubled, suicidal youth from Ordinary People. Most refreshingly, Scorsese and Polanski each include the casting of a wise-man who's seen it all. Isn't it fitting that the Ghost receives a vital bit of information from Eli Wallach--famous worldwide as the Ugly? Or that Teddy almost gets injected by Max Von Sydow--the Exorcist himself? If we remember Wallach's amusing cameo in Eastwood's Mystic River (also based on a Dennis Lehane novel) or Von Sydow's swansong performance in Spielberg's Minority Report, it's wonderful to see that both actors are still hanging in there, and doing an amazing job yet again.

I don't share the disgust that some of Scorsese's fans have had regarding his continuous collaborations with Leonardo DiCaprio. I would be happy to see them work on another film together, if they see fit. I thought Scorsese brought out a raw viscerality in DiCaprio, in Gangs of New York and The Departed, that he hadn't shown before. His performance in The Aviator (my favorite of Scorsese's films from the last decade) was nothing short of spellbinding. It's certainly tempting to say that Shutter Island contains the best work he's done in all of Scorsese's films, but I won't go there. Let me just hint that by the time the film reaches the point where Teddy is wallowing through a pond, howling up to the sky with his three dead children in his arms, it is the very definition of a great performance reaching its climax. This scene is bookended by devastating scenes in which Ben Kingsley and Mark Ruffalo try to convince Teddy--and the audience as well--that everything we have just seen is a lie.

To me, Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan, in The Ghost Writer, have each given the finest performances of their respective careers. I think what I admired most about McGregor in the film is that... well, I kept forgetting he was Ewan McGregor. He's given strong performances before, in films like Big Fish, Black Hawk Down and especially Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, but in those films he also carried the weight of Hollywood's celebrity pomposity. In this film, he is more subtle, and disappears into his character. The same can be said even more for Pierce Brosnan. Any actor who plays James Bond eventually needs to find a redeeming role that can break the 007 curse; if John Huston and The Man Who Would Be King (or maybe John Boorman, with Zardoz) provided that opportunity for Sean Connery, then Polanski, here, has provided that opportunity for Brosnan. There is a scene in The Ghost Writer in which the Ghost relinquishes small-talk and confronts Brosnan's character, the Blair-like Adam Lang, with the truth. Then Lang explodes right back at him, telling him to cut that bleeding-heart liberal hogwash. That's the moment when we realize that 007 is no more, and that the real Pierce Brosnan is here to stay.

Make no mistake that the women in both films get similarly rich opportunities. The women of Shutter Island beautifully resurrect stereotypes of film noir: Emily Mortimer is the damsel in despair; Patricia Clarkson is the shadowy figure who serves as a relay for hot information in Teddy's futile quest; and Michelle Williams' performance as Teddy's dead wife is unspeakably chilling because, even from the grave, she never ceases to exist as a terrible influence on Teddy's course of action. By comparison, the women of The Ghost Writer are, shall we say, more realistic. Unlike her forgettable roles in The Sixth Sense and Rushmore, Olivia Williams' portrayal of Adam Lang's angry wife is scene-stealing; this is her strongest role since George Hickenlooper's The Man From Elysian Fields (2002), and we have every reason to believe it when she becomes the most threatening presence in the way of the Ghost's life. Kim Cattrall is sexy and calculating as Lang's aide; I'm kind of thrown for a loop by the criticisms of Cattrall's English accent in the film, considering that Cattrall herself is English by nature (if you recall, she also had an English accent in the 1990's- when De Palma cast her as McCoy's wife in The Bonfire of the Vanities).

Something else to note on this subject is that Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer are stark critiques of the misogyny that plagues the male-dominated environments in both films. Teddy Daniels, for example, is at first merely willing to admit that he “killed” his wife; it is only after some pondering that he is willing to confess that his crime was an act of murder, very much akin to his unit's crime of murdering Nazi prisoners of war at the death camp. And Adam Lang and the Ghost are aware that, since they are living in the time of John Edwards, things like adultery are easy to get away with in the political world. But the women do not forget about it.

The soundtracks of both films are something to be desired. Polanski's composer for The Ghost Writer is Alexandre Desplat, whose music alternates from thrilling to quirky- much like his previous work on the soundtrack for Fantastic Mr. Fox. Scorsese's music supervisor for Shutter Island is, oddly enough, Robbie Robertson. The two have been friends ever since they made The Last Waltz in 1978 together, when Robertson declared that sixteen years with The Band was long enough. Now here he is adapting eerie cello music for the opening and closing of Shutter Island, and it's enough to put a smile on one's face.

One thing I was not expecting, however, was Scorsese's decision to play the song “This Bitter Earth” during the end credits of the film. The song has been used in movies before, most prominently by Charles Burnett on the soundtrack for Killer of Sheep--to help visualize the harsh reality of poor black suburbia. I am not sure why Scorsese uses the song in the end credits for Shutter Island, although the decision to align Dinah Washington's vocal lyrics with a new violin score inserted by Robertson may or may not have something to do with what the film is all about. Teddy has awoken from his living nightmare, only to seemingly fall into it again. What a bitter Earth, Scorsese appears to be suggesting, for allowing this to happen to such a courageous federal marshal.

That Scorsese and Polanski's accomplishments are being hissed at in certain places by cynics who do not appreciate their unconventional challenges to the art form are, alas, a given. I suppose A.O. Scott thought he was doing the rest of the critical community a favor, in his Shutter Island review, when he told his peers that it was okay to trash Scorsese's latest. And I bet Kyle Smith was feeling very proud of himself when he allowed his partisan politics to get the better of him in his Ghost Writer review--which is full of cheap shots at Polanski's personal life, and not at all valid as an actual critique of the film itself.

I wish more people could understand how much of Scorsese and Polanski themselves are in each of these two films. Polanski, now a family man in his late 70's, is no doubt beginning to appreciate the values of life--it is brave of him, then, to end The Ghost Writer on a note of such poetic misfortune, as the Ghost (he is unnamed for the entirety of the picture) is struck by a car off-camera, killed just when he has finally uncovered the secrets behind the awful truth. Scorsese, meanwhile, is in his late 60's, still getting to make epic, glorious films while affording to still take life for granted a little; he is equally brave, however, to allow Teddy Daniels to walk into the hands of his enemies and give up, after he realizes that there is no awful truth for him to discover. The point is, whether their films end with papers flying in the wind or with a stoic lighthouse that is home to the worst punishment imaginable, Scorsese and Polanski have retaken the hill. They are, once again, great kings of cinema. Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer represent them at the pinnacles of their craft. I hope I am not alone when I say- right here and right now- that I am screaming for more.


  1. I wrote my reply to your comment on my blog before I had read your post. Yes, you nailed the 9th Gate comparison perfectly. I actually think that's an underrated movie for most of the duration, but that ending sure is a stinker. I vividly recall the crowd at 84th street (who was by and large pretty engaged with the movie) turn vocally hostile at the very last scene with boos, hisses, and screams of "Bullshit!" & I can't say I disagreed with them at that point. I was actually watching the 9th Gate again on cable a day or so before I saw the Ghost Writer & I was struck by how well directed and engaging the film was. It was clear that both films shared subtle pacing and rhythms that turned seemingly classical compositions and edits into something much more ominous and menacing.
    I will probably give Shutter Island another viewing, but right now I think it's definitely cinematically masterful (and full of great acting) - but I can't say it feels terribly personal or necessary for an artist of Scorsese's stature. That being said - it's alot more cinematically interesting than most of what Scorsese has been acclaimed for in the past 10 years & yet he's getting pilloried by those critics in a somewhat hypocritical fashion. Apples and oranges, but I can't believe AO Scott would recommend Tim Burton's crapola version of Alice in Wonderland over Scorsese's infinitely more interesting cinematic exercise.

  2. Chris, I was pleasantly surprised how much more I enjoyed Shutter Island when I saw it a second time. After I first saw it, I kept whining, "This is just another one of those movies plagued by the Keyser Soze Syndrome"! After Fight Club, Memento and The Others, I was pretty much done with all of those movies that try to end with some sort of eye-popping "twist".

    The reason I'm finally able to take an exception for Shutter Island's ending is because, to me, the twist aligns well with what the film is about. Not since The Crying Game, I don't think, has a plot secret so beautifully illuminated the filmmaker's approach. My friend Ryan Kelly was talking about this in his review of the film: veteran's post-traumatic stress syndrome is something Scorsese has explored before, in Taxi Driver and in his early short film, The Big Shave. In some ways he also sort of went into it with New York, New York, if you count De Niro's womanizing of Liza Minnelli upon returning home from the war.

    I believe that there are two ways to watch Shutter Island: one, as a pure experiment in film noir. That's what I was looking for when I first saw the film, was the way Scorsese resurrects those old fedoras, shadowy set pieces, and those Chandlerian wisecracks about being married, having kids, returning from service, etc; not to mention Scorsese's references to classic films. The other way to watch the movie is knowing that the twist is coming, listening carefully to Teddy's lines and observing how the entire quest he's going on is all just a scam. I'm a sucker for films that can be watched in different ways, and Shutter Island is one of them.

    I have only seen The Ghost Writer once, and I can't wait to see it again. I'm not sure how I should watch it this time, although when I saw it I do remember thinking to myself, "How are all of these random scenes going to add up in the end?" Then it ended, and, as Jim Emerson notes in his blog piece on the film, I remember a smile crawling across my face from the moment I saw those papers flying across the street. The Ninth Gate is an excellent film, but it would have truly been a landmark in Polanski's career (like The Ghost Writer now is, I would argue) if it had had an ending that brilliant.

  3. Wow, Adam, congratulations on what is really a spectacular and exhaustive piece of writing, brilliantly examining these two films together, and noting (surprisingly) their thematic similarities in setting, performance, and artistic components. I loved the way you trumpeted the comparitive aspects in celebratory form:

    "Ladies and gentlemen, the new decade of cinema has officially opened with the arrival of two great films by two legendary filmmakers. Fate must have had a hand in deciding that Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer premiere, together, in the first few months (and in the same weekend, no less!) in 2010."

    Indeed, and I happen to completely agree with you, as I loved both films too! (I gave GHOST WRITER 4/5 and SHUTTER ISLAND 4 1/2/5)

    Kyle Smith is an idiot. The New York Post should really consider sending him on his merry way, as his reviews are inept, and condescending, his writing pedestrian, and his taste laughable.

    And Scorsese's use of that song may well have been another homage to what he sees as an American independent masterpiece - KILLER OF SHEEP. Prior to that, as you so astutely note is the ominous cello, which gives the film the chilling aural underpinnings that accentaute and fuel some masterful set pieces, set in a cave, a lighthouse, a cafeteria, a cemetery burial vault and in a study. Scrsese uses weather superlatively to externalize the action, and make some scenes particularly intimate. As I stated in response to the film at other blogs, I was completely unprepared for the film's final conceit, and I was gleefully taken for a breathtaking ride. A second viewing enabled me to trace the various clues including the scene in the cafeteria where Di Caprio scribbles hard on paper, making one patient go bonkers. (How would Leo have known that this patient couldn't take this?) And then, how did the police captain know Leo and his partner were in the burial vault unles she was "tipped off?" But there are several more too.

    I'm also glad you mentioned Desplat's excellent GHOST WRITER score. Desplat of course, is one of the cinema's finest working composers and he delivers here in a big way for Polanski.

    Yes, I quite agree that both films are on one level political allegories, especially Polanski's film, which is a critique of Tony Blair's policies. And I think you really nailed it here Adam:

    "Something else to note on this subject is that Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer are stark critiques of the misogyny that plagues the male-dominated environments in both films. Teddy Daniels, for example, is at first merely willing to admit that he “killed” his wife; it is only after some pondering that he is willing to confess that his crime was an act of murder, very much akin to his unit's crime of murdering Nazi prisoners of war at the death camp. And Adam Lang and the Ghost are aware that, since they are living in the time of John Edwards, things like adultery are easy to get away with in the political world. But the women do not forget about it."

    I couldn't agree with you more, nor could I have posed it any better than that.

    Again, this is a tremendous comparative and analytical piece, and it rightly makes claim to the late career pre-eminence of two of contemporary cinema's most gifted auteurs.

  4. I think that ckoh71 hit it on the head when he said that Shutter Island is masterfully made, but certainly doesn't feel like a story that Scorsese HAD to tell.

  5. Sam, I've taken issues with Kyle Smith's writings for about, oh, three years now. Once I realized how overzealous and partisan he is, I put him on my list of critics to avoid. Yet not only does the New York Post continue to employ him (how does Variety end up firing their best critic- Todd McCarthy- while the New York Post holds onto their worst critic?), but rottentomatoes and Metacritic still update us on Smith's reviews. And if I have to see a snippet of the part where he writes "Roman Polanski, you are the mayor of Chutzpatown" one more time... wow. It's like Smith waited until Polanski got arrested before he could start saying these hateful things about him.

    I initially thought that the playing of "This Bitter Earth" was an homage to Killer of Sheep, but I'm trying to figure out if there's more to it than that. Why would Scorsese pay tribute to a 1970's black independent film... in the end credits of an epic film noir? Doesn't make much sense to me. But Robbie Robertson's violin score that has been added to the song specifically for this film seems to suggest that Scorsese has included it for thematic reasons as well.

    Actually, there's a lot of things about Shutter Island that I'm still not 100% clear on, which is why I'd happily see the film a third time. The part you mentioned where Teddy is scribbling on the paper to drive that one inmate nuts is a good example; I never thought of that, your point about how it's strange that Teddy appears to know what makes the inmate tick. I'm equally unclear about a lot of things in The Ghost Writer, too. I really love the scene at the end with the note being passed down through the crowd at the party- although at the same time I'm not even sure what the significance of that whole scene is. Haha.

    Thank you very much for your compliments here, Sam. I'm always glad to see you stop by here.

  6. Adam, I disagree. I think it's good for Scorsese to try to find other genres to excel in. Back when The Departed was released, there was hype about how "Scorsese is back on the mean streets where he belongs", and that worried me a little. Don't get me wrong, I love The Departed (and Gangs of New York), but it's time for Scorsese to explore other, richer horizons. Some of his best films of the last twenty years- The Age of Innocence, Kundun, The Aviator- are far, far away from that tough New York sensibility of his that he's beginning to be associated with in a negative way, much as Robert Altman has rather incorrectly been associated with overlapping dialogue and improvisation. Both filmmakers are much more than that.

    In fact, my pick for Scorsese's masterpiece is one of his least "Scorsesian" films: The Last Temptation of Christ. What's your opinion on that one? I recall you saying awhile back that you're not much of a Scorsese fan, although you do profess to be an admirer of Raging Bull.

  7. Adam, I absolutely agree that Scorsese should do more films that aren't stereotypically "Scorsese" for his own artistic growth and fulfillment. I kind of feel like many of the films of the last decade weren't films he really wanted to make deep in heart and soul, but were either films he was expected to make or given the easiest opportunity to make because of the overall package. This is why I'm heartened to hear about Silence being back on track. I know he's been trying to get that off the ground for over a decade & it sounds like a difficult project from a commercial perspective - but perfect for Scorsese to go against the grain and still express his pet spiritual themes.
    Variety firing McCarthy is a disgrace. There aren't many active critics of substance left with a vast knowledge of film history and tradition that I feel like I can learn something from even when I disagree with their opinions. I certainly took issue with many of McCarthy's pronouncements, but there was no question that he was truly a cinema guy. And Visions of Light was simply wonderful.
    BTW, HBO is apparently posting the 1st episode of the Pacific online at for a limited time. They won't do the same with the rest of the series, but at least you can take a peak at the premiere. You have to register, but it's an easy process. Maybe you can take a peak at the preview for Boardwalk Empire there as well (or on YouTube, someone must have posted it by now).

  8. Oh, btw - Robbie Robertson didn't compose that score. He just found all the music which tended to be contemporary 20th century classical like John Adams, Ligeti, Penderecki, Cage. I think the NY Times did a nice piece on how Scorsese told Robertson that for the 1st time ever, he had no clue what the musical cues should be. I hadn't made the Killer of Sheep connection, but with Scorsese you never know. Alot of people hated Shutter Island's score (which to my ears sounded like an homage of sorts to what Kubrick did in the Shining, 2001, and even Eyes Wide Shut), but I found it very effective. Then again, I enjoyed playing that kind of music in orchestra - if only because it was a break from the traditional warhorses we usually played.

  9. Chris, thanks for the correction on the Shutter Island score. I'll fix that in a jiffy.

    Of the films from the last decade, I know that Gangs of New York had been a pet project of Scorsese's since the 1970's; although he hinted in some interviews with Ebert that the film didn't quite turn out exactly the way he wanted it to be, due to some interferences by the Weinsteins. First they BUY those Oscars for Shakespeare in Love and Chicago, then they tamper with a Scorsese epic? I hope they retire soon.

    I'm not sure what made Scorsese want to do The Aviator. I consider it his masterpiece of the decade, but I'll have to find out his reasons for making it. Knowing that Brian De Palma and Nicholas Cage were initially supposed to make a Howard Hughes biopic of their own called Mr. Hughes, however, it would surprise me if Scorsese seriously only did The Aviator out of profit. If so, he took away De Palma's pet project in waiting!

    I definitely suspect that he did The Departed out of popular demand. He probably figured that another mob movie would secure his place in the public eye, which is the exact same kind of thinking that usually prompts Spielberg to make another Indiana Jones sequel. As for Silence, I've heard bits and pieces about it, but I don't know. We'll see if it's interesting.

    Totally forgot that Todd McCarthy was the genius behind Voices of Light. Good call there, Chris.

  10. Adam: You highlighted a lot of similarities -- coincidental in many cases, obviously -- between the two films that I hadn't noticed.

    I think Shutter Island, while problematic, is the better film by far. I wish Scorsese hadn't fucked around with the very commercial twist structure (if Spielberg did this, people would use it as evidence that he's too fan friendly). I'm not surprised in the least to hear that you liked the movie better the second time, which I think underscores my point. It's a deeper film without the mystery operating as a distraction, insisting that you pay attention to it.

    I saw Ghost Writer a few weeks ago and I found it visually awesome but largely empty otherwise. Just to mention one gripe: I absolutely hate the new narrative laziness in which CNN comes on to explain everything to us -- usually delivering the report at exactly the moment it's most convenient -- and Ghost Writer has at least three of those scenes. Polanski's fans will say it's a commentary on our culture, but I don't buy that. It's just an easy way to get the job done.

    That leads me here:

    Scorsese and Polanski also try to experiment with political allegories that we never would have dreamed they had any interest in.

    Though I agree with you that Polanski is interestd in Blair/Bush/torture, etc., I think Scorsese's interest in World War II, as evidenced by Shutter Island, is purely cinematic. That is, I think he was compelled to imagine WWII on the big screen, but I don't think he was commenting on it. Or at least that wasn't his aim. Maybe I'm wrong, but I certainly don't feel like I came away from Shutter Island learning anything about Scorsese's outlook on the world beyond the fact that he fucking loves movies. And that's fine.

    OK. Enough rambling. Again, nice piece.

  11. Terrific post Adam, I just managed to see The Ghost Writer this week and was bowled over. I was so struck by its faith in the audience -- its quiet presentation that trusted us to draw our own unease from it -- that I'm not sure if I adequately described what I liked about it because I've truly never had that experience.

    I also agree about the anti-misogyny angle, at least in The Ghost Writer. I didn't write down the quote fast enough so I never used it in my review but the exchange between The Ghost and Ruth about him wanting to "preserve" her in history through the autobiography and her rebuttal that women are always left out of the books was so telling, plus that "didn't you want to be a proper politician?" bit that reveals the price so many wives, many of them no less intelligent and politically savvy as their husbands, must pay for the sake of the image of a "proper" family.

  12. Jason, you make a very, very good point about how Spielberg would probably never have gotten away with that twist ending in Shutter Island. He couldn't escape crucifixion by fans who moronically believed he "ruined" Kubrick's original ending of A.I., so I doubt he would get off easy with this, either.

    HOWEVER, there was a lot of angry feedback to the ending of Minority Report, because, by ultimately clearing Anderton's name at the end (and exposing Lamar Burgess' crime), Spielberg didn't give audiences the wholly pessimistic, Brazil-type ending that some were hoping for. I still think Minority Report ends on a pretty pessimistic note (Washington D.C. is practically left without a trustworthy justice system at the end!), but the fact that Shutter Island ends with its hero getting lobotomized would have worked as a cool contrast to Minority Report, if Spielberg had directed it.

    The CNN interludes in The Ghost Writer didn't bother me because I thought it was only realistic for Polanski to include them. The only times I've ever been annoyed by media interludes in movies is when they're included in big, dumb disaster movies. Roland Emmerich appears to have a fetish for them, for example. But I think Polanski uses the technique responsibly.

    I agree with you that a lot of the WWII imagery in Shutter Island is necessary simply for those typical elements of film noir; however, the part where Teddy starts expressing grief over what he and his unit did to the Nazis at the death camp is not typical of noir, and is probably something that Scorsese and his screenwriter, Laeta Kalogridis, included to satisfy audiences who might have been offended by all of that Holocaust imagery on the side.

    btw Jason, I can't wait for the McQueen blogathon! I'm working on my own contribution even as we speak.

  13. Jake, you read my mind on the way that Ghost Writer has that whole thing of quiet brilliance going on. As I was watching the film, I wasn't quite sure where it was going or where it would ultimately end up with all of those spaghettied tangents, but then it all came together, and I was floored by its cunning effect.

    The timing of of the infidelity elements in The Ghost Writer couldn't be better. Even now, this week, we're hearing all this talk of John Edwards' mistress coming out to the public and telling all, and it's remarkable how Polanski has basically been documenting it every step of the way. That's why I just balk at those parts of Kyle Smith's stupid, juvenile review of the film which try to portray Polanski as some kind of misogynist. To my mind- especially if you've seen Repulsion (which Kim Morgan has famously stated every female should see)- Polanski understands women more than most filmmakers and critics. Certainly more than Smith.

    Thanks for your comment, Jake. I'll be sure to read your Ghost Writer review, too.

  14. Great stuff here, Adam, spectacularly in depth (though I have not yet seen The Ghost Writer and didn't read some of the sections about it, and the ones I did were probably lost on me. When I see it next week, I'll come back to this piece). I particularly love the way you link the murdering of the Williams' character in Shutter Island to the slaughter of the Nazi soldiers, because I think a large part of that film's power is the way it links sociological tragedies to personal ones.

    Glad you bring up Schindler's List, as this movie reminded me that Scorsese was probably the right man for the job*

    And No Direction Home=F for Fake? Extrapolate, explicate, elaborate... please.

    *Note: Me trying to make you mad

  15. Oh, also, for some reason your posts don't show up in my RSS and I never see them until long after the fact.

  16. This is an outstanding piece, Adam, and I say that as an avid non-fan of one of these films. (The other one I just saw today and adored.) The similarities you cite are indeed uncanny, from the ferries at the beginning to the bleak ending of each. The Ninth Gate makes for an interesting comparison too, for the reasons you mentioned as well as the practically old-fashioned importance of books and writing in both movies (and the idea that The Ghost Writer picks up on Kubrick where The Ninth Gate left off is a masterstroke).

    For me, the similarities break down by how each director invests himself in his own story. Jason feels that The Ghost Writer is "visually awesome but largely empty" -- a description that I think describes Shutter Island to a "T." I was bored out of my skull by Scorsese's picture because I didn't believe for a moment that he was invested in the film beyond it being a technical exercise. There's nothing wrong with that as long as an entertaining movie is the end result, but I thought the film's leaden seriousness didn't jibe at all with its schlocky B-movie conventions. Jason also thought that Scorsese's interest in WWII was "purely cinematic," and that I agree with . In fact, I go further and speculate that he chose to make Shutter Island because he saw it as his last chance to make a war-movie set-piece; I don't see anything terribly profound in his view of war (or the Holocaust), and consequently I thought it was awkwardly inserted into what is basically a genre picture.

    Polanski, unlike Scorsese, is quite comfortable doing genre, as his resume proves: film noir (Chinatown); horror (Rosemary's Baby); historical biopic (The Pianist); and now a political thriller. The Ghost Writer works beautifully as a genre piece, yet all of Polanski's obsessions -- some profound, others fucked-up, all of which deal with the real world rather than cinema -- are in the picture too, and it's only better for having them. (He's damn funny too, especially the moment where another character assures McGregor that he won't be drowned like his predecessor because "you're writers, not kittens.") In a year where we're only going to see more CGI, more 3-D, more more more, it's going to be hard to top for pure thrills the shot of a note being passed from hand to hand. I was exhilarated watching that sequence, and the feeling continued right through the bleakly comic punchline.

  17. Ryan, I think I may have a solution as to why my posts are failing to show up in your RSS: when I changed my site's URL from "Icebox Reels" to "Icebox Movies", that might have interrupted the feeds of everybody who had previously been following my site. I don't know if it will work, but I suggest that you Stop Following my site, and then Star Following it again. Perhaps that will fix it. Either that, or it's some glitch you're having...?

    I'm surprised so many people have been complimenting me for bringing up the situation involving the killing of Teddy's wife in Shutter Island. The thing is, after I heard Teddy say, "I killed my wife... because she murdered our children", that raised a red flag for me. Is he trying to justify what he did? But then he confesses, "I murdered my wife in the spring of 1952". Still, the fact that he had to hesitate about it says something.

    Oh, and yes- I caught that Schindler's List diss. Ho ho ho. Are we going to make good on our promise to write competing articles on that film? I'm in the mood. Something else I gotta say on the subject: I'll bet if Scorsese had directed that film, it would have turned out the same way. He was the one who initially hired Steve Zaillian to write the screenplay, ya see.

    Thanks a bunch for stopping by, Ryan! I hope you enjoy The Ghost Writer, too. I actually just got back from seeing it for the second time, and can confirm that on a second viewing it is an even richer experience.

  18. Craig, I'm absolutely in agreement with everything you've said about The Ghost Writer. I had forgotten about that witty "kittens" line until I saw the film a second time earlier tonight. To me, the most priceless moment of biting humor in the film is when Jim Belushi shows the Ghost out the door and reminds him, "now, remember: HAAAEET." lol

    I was definitely caught off-guard by how similar the scene where the Ghost visits Emmet's house feels so much like that scene in Eyes Wide Shut where Cruise goes back to the mansion in the morning after the orgy. Both sequences involve a trip to a mysterious private sector deep in the woods. And where Kubrick had Alex North (if I'm correct...?) to combine his sequence with atmospheric music, so do Polanski and Alexander Desplat do a similar thing with their own sequence. Ebert was also talking in his review about how cool it is that the dead Ghost basically leaves McGregor's Ghost with all of these clues. And you may be right that few sequences this year are going to top Polanski's "note-passing sequence". Wouldn't that be wild!

    I'm surprised that you weren't entertained by Shutter Island. I adored the way that Scorsese does what De Palma tried to do with The Black Dahlia, and basically constructs an epic film noir. The fedoras, the wisecracks, the shadowy set pieces all made me giddy. Having seen the picture more than once, what's also remarkable is that you can enjoy the film in this way even with the knowledge that the twist is coming.

    The Holocaust flashbacks did feel rather out of place to me at first. I can easily understand why they would be interpreted as exploitative. The only effective way I can really argue for the use of these flashbacks in the film is that they form a crucial fragment of the complicated puzzle that sets Teddy off. Again, not a very convincing argument for more realistic audiences, but then again I think that Scorsese has abandoned realism ever since Kundun. Even Bringing Out the Dead has a hero who hallucinates of spirits asking him "why didn't you save me?" as Teddy does in this film.

    While we're talking about Scorsese, there's something I forgot to mention to Ryan: No Direction Home might not be a sheer magic trick like F for Fake was, although its subject is certainly as untrustworthy as Clifford Irving was in Welles' masterpiece. Dylan can't really explain why he ditched Joan Baez on tour, for example. Or explain why he skipped classes. Because he's a FAKE, that's why!!!

    Really appreciate your taking the time to stop by and comment, Craig. Always a pleasure to see you here.

  19. I'm so impressed by the quality of analysis in this post and all the insightful comments. I'm browsing through various blogs and reviews on Ghost Writer in the hope that someone will restore the delight I felt with the film up until the last several minutes, when the Ghost does something that I cannot for the life of me comprehend, unless he suddenly loses lots of brain cells or becomes suicidal. Why does he let Ruth know that he knows? He didn't take their sleeping together seriously before, so it can't be that he suddenly decides they're in love or something ridiculous like that. How could he not realize that he would be a marked man the minute he passed the note? Seems like polanski just needed a quick way to end the film, what a pity...

  20. Pleased to meet you, delrey! Of your observations regarding the ending of The Ghost Writer, I don't think the Ghost was killed merely for passing the note- I think they were planning on killing him the minute he walked out the door. If you remember, this was the exact same spot where he was "mugged", at the beginning of the film, by the motorcycle thugs who steal Sid Kroll's manuscript from him. Apparently this is where they hang out whenever he visits this spot at either point in the film.

    I agree with you that it's ridiculous of the Ghost to even bother passing the note to Ruth in the first place; I believe this was merely something Polanski included so that he could show off with that long take of the note being passed. Storywise, it's unnecessary, although filmmaking-wise it's brilliant. Like I said, Polanski is probably just trying to prove to skeptical audiences that he's still "got it", for a director in his late 70's.

  21. I didn't even notice that it was the mugging location, and him being a marked man already would explain how they could have acted so quickly after the revelation in the note. And I guess if one assumes that the Ghost suspected that he would be done away with whether or not they knew for sure that he'd figured it out, it would make sense that he'd want to show off a little before his demise.
    Still, he could have fought by making his story public - the whole ending still somehow doesn't come together for me.
    Though the fact that I'm still trying to process the movie three days later speaks well of it, I suppose.

  22. Good eye, Adam; I didn't notice that was the same spot either.

    I agree that "Hitchcockian" is a worn-out term, but The Ghost Writer does remind me of Hitchcock in its ability to make dramatic sense (as you suggested) as opposed to real-life sense. In reality, I'd be wondering what Ruth Lang and Bennett were even doing together at a public gathering in the first place. Actually, the thought crossed my mind while watching the movie too. But if a movie is seductive and entertaining, I'm willing to go with it more than a film that's not working for me and I'm busy counting the contrivances.

  23. I actually have to give credit to Jim Emerson regarding the observation over the mugging spot. He mentions it in one of his two articles in the film- in order to justify the immediacy of the ending.

    Totally with you there, Craig, on how Polanski succeeds with this film on what the Master of Suspense used to do best, and can get his audience to believe the most absurd coincidences imaginable. I do wish somebody would invent a synonym for "Hitchcockian", however. Today, if one thriller is Hitchockian, all of them are!


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