Nick Duval of The Flick Pick Monster blog kindly invited me and several other cinephiles and film writers to be a part of a post he curated showcasing beloved last scenes of films. For my contribution, I immediately decided on Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer. I find its ending to be the most gorgeous and gut-wrenching conclusion of a film within recent memory.
Below is my mini-essay. You can read the whole eclectic collection at Nick's blog, featuring entries on a wide range of movies, including 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tokyo Sonata.
Since this is the description of the ending of a thriller, it's a spoiler buffet. I'd recommend only reading it if you've already seen The Ghost Writer, which I highly recommend anyone who loves well-crafted films do. It made my top 10 of 2010 list and I can't say enough good things about it. For now, saying good things about the ending will have to do. Cheers.
Goodbye, illusions: A toast to the ending of The Ghost Writer
To best describe the ending of Roman Polanski’s origami-tidy thriller The Ghost Writer, I need to start at the beginning. Early in the film we meet an author played by a bemused yet earnest Ewan McGregor (named in the credits only as The Ghost). Over a meal, he and his agent discuss a possible new gig. The project? Completing the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister since the previous ghost writer met an untimely end.
“Now, you realize I know nothing about politics?” challenges The Ghost, to which his agent counters: “You voted for him, didn’t you?” This seemingly innocuous, expository exchange gets to the heart of what Polanski’s exploring here: sociopolitical guilt by complicity.
Story similarities to Tony Blair’s checkered days as Bush’s whipping boy are barely veiled, but Polanski desires more than a cathartic, cinematic conviction of the Coalition. He seems to want us to take stock of our own responsibilities as citizens. Is there such a thing as an innocent bystander anymore?
Quickly losing his own bystander status in the film, The Ghost becomes dangerously enmeshed in solving a mystery uncovered during his book research. Making thrilling use of Hitchcockian touches, Polanski threads us through a needle of intrigue leading to the final, fateful stitch: a publisher’s party celebrating the release of the memoirs.
In the midst of the champagne toasting, The Ghost has an epiphany and hides himself away in a side room with the original ghost writer’s manuscript. A fevered discovery is made as he slides a felt-tip marker under the first word of each chapter, forming a sentence that reveals the Prime Minister’s wife, Ruth, played by a terse and terrific Olivia Williams, was a CIA agent during her marriage. Scribbling his damning discovery on a sheet of paper, The Ghost folds the page neatly, writes Ruth’s name on the front and returns to the party.
The next sequence is breathtaking in its jarringly analogue elegance. As Ruth stands onstage giving a tribute to her husband before the gathered crowd, The Ghost hands his note over to a guest on the perimeter of the throng. The guest peers down at the addressee’s name and then hands the note to the person in front of him to move it along to Ruth. Guest by guest, the note drifts across the party like a butterfly alighting on one hand after another, all at a heart-in-the-throat molasses pace. The camera drifts alongside, tracing the paper’s path in close-cropped claustrophobia, almost rubbing elbows with the crowd.
Fluorescent light from above fuzzes the close-quartered edges of the revelers’ fine wool and silk garments and turns half-drunk glasses of alcohol into lustrous swinging lanterns of crimson and amber. This masterfully choreographed assembly-line sequence serves as a strikingly eloquent metaphor for the way complicity touches so many.
As Ruth finishes her speech to warm applause, the missive reaches her hand. Balancing a microphone while unfolding the paper, she smiles tightly. The camera coils below her, dramatically canted, as if preparing to strike. Reading the message, her world-weary face contracts in grey anger. She looks up and spots The Ghost, who raises his glass to her in a sarcastic, wordless toast before slipping away.
As he hurries into the street with the manuscript evidence clutched to his chest, it is twilight. The sky is a trembling, dim blue and the asphalt is wet from London rain, distorting the golden beams from the streetlights. The Ghost shuffles nervously, trying to hail a cab. It skims by him and after a moment’s hesitation in the middle of the lane, he continues across the street and out of frame.
From further down the road, a car approaches, accelerates and barrels out of the same corner of the frame. A muffled impact is heard, then the screech of brakes. People in the street react ever so slowly, as if dumbfounded. Now fluttering into frame from the corner of impact comes a single sheet of manuscript paper, immediately connecting us to the ugly truth that The Ghost has been crushed by the car. Cops and bystanders hurry out of frame to the accident scene, but the camera remains stubbornly fixed. Another manuscript sheet, and then another, spiral into frame until a torrent of pages twist in the wind away from us like a tipped-over tornado. It’s as if we’re seeing the life’s blood draining from the victim’s body in paper form. The sense of futility is smothering. Even if we are brave enough to take action against complicity, is our resistance against the misuse of power ultimately hopeless?
Some found the ending of The Ghost Writer to be an F.U. to the audience: Polanski rubbing his cynicism in our faces. Quite the contrary. There’s a sorrow that leaks through the film like watercolors. The Ghost Writer may have a slick surface, but Polanski’s heart is bleeding underneath in empathetic grief, as the splash of red in the gut of almost every shot seems to represent.
As with the ending of his revered classic, Chinatown, Polanski leaves us on a darkened city street facing the death of a pawn at the hands of the powerful. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown,” is still Polanski’s sentiment in The Ghost Writer, only now he’s expanded the scope of his frustration as if to say: “Forget it, Jake. The whole world’s Chinatown.”