Magazine article Tikkun

Suspense, Malaise, and the Movies

Magazine article Tikkun

Suspense, Malaise, and the Movies

Article excerpt



THE GHOSTWRITER, Summit Entertainment, 2010

THEWHITERIBBON, Sony Pictures Classics, 2009

SHUTTERISLAND, Paramount Pictures, 2010

Review by David Sterriti

SUSPENSEFUL MOVIES HAVE always been popular, but moviegoers (and critics) use the word "suspense" so automatically that its original meaning- the state of being literally, physically suspended -tends to be overlooked. While we get much pleasure from suspense films, the most memorable ones make us uncomfortable as well, reminding us how precarious and unpredictable life can be, how the things we value sometimes seem to hang by a thread that could snap at any time. This is why serious filmmakers often use suspenseful stories to explore their ideas. By placing characters in situations charged with uncertainty and malaise, they hope to shake us into more acute awareness of the problems we all face and the solutions we need to find.

Current releases by three thoughtful filmmakers rely on suspense for a major part of their effectiveness, and their distinctive approaches show how adaptable the genre is to changing times. The one with the most old-fashioned flair is The Ghost Writer, directed by Roman Polanski, who had almost finished it when he was jailed last September on a 1978 arrest warrant for unlawful intercourse with a minor. The Ghost Writer is a relatively gentle thriller, suggesting that Polanski has mellowed since the days when he specialized in disquieting and sometimes violent pictures such as Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974). Yet the film seems almost as personal as his 2002 drama ThePianist, which was partly based on his own memories of being a Polish Jewish refugee struggling for survival in Nazi-ruled Warsaw.

Ewan McGregor plays the title character of The Ghost Writer, an author hired to replace a scribe who has mysteriously died while helping a retired British prime minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), finish his memoirs. Parallels between Lang and Polanski are hard to miss. Polanski has been unable to enter the United States since he fled the country rather than face trial thirty-one years ago, while Lang is unable to leave his temporary retreat in the United States, so badly has he infuriated many of his compatriots back home. Even in America he has trouble avoiding British demonstrators yelling catcalls and waving signboards with insulting slogans. Is this a natural element of the plot, which is based on Robert Harris's novel The Ghost, or is Polanski making a sardonic joke at his own- and America's, and Britain'sexpense?

Critics have come down on both sides of the question, but this isn't what makes the movie interesting. Its most revealing aspects are political, since the fictional Adam Lang clearly resembles the real-life Tony Blair, one of George W. Bush's chief enablers and accomplices in the Iraq war, and the new ghostwriter comes upon information pointing to clandestine ties between Lang, the Central Intelligence Agency, and secret policies of prisoner abuse and torture. The Ghost Writer doesn't delve very deeply into this- that would carry too many commercial risks for a movie of this size and scope- but its glimpses of government conspiracy are far bolder than the action-film heroics of Green Zone and the apolitical exploits of The Hurt Locker. Polanski hasn't lost the skill he showed in Chinatown for blending suspense-movie chills with sociopolitical themes.

Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke is another suspense specialist who appears to have mellowed lately; compared with shockers like Funny Games and The Piano Teacher, his Oscar-nominated mystery The White Ribbon is practically genteel, unfolding its story in nostalgic black-and-white and keeping most of the nastiness off-screen. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.