The Ghost Writer had its world première at FrightFest 2022
The Ghost Writer opens with a dim-lit hotel corridor and with Gilliger Graham (Luke Mably) roaring into a bathroom mirror, whether in pain or triumph or madness, before there is cut to him onstage accepting a literary award for his latest book, also called The Ghost Writer. The rest of Paul Wilkins’ film, co-written with Guy Fee, will involve a series of complex flashbacks revealing (and concealing) the true story of who Gilliger is, and what inspired his novel.
Gilliger has long been living in the shadow of his father Irwin (Robert Portal). It is not just that he is haunted by childhood memories of a loving if distracted patriarch who, divorced and increasingly estranged from his own son, would hang himself when Gilliger was still a small, uncomprehending boy, but also that Irwin was also himself a much-celebrated, multi-awarded author of whodunnits whose shoes the washed-up Gilliger now struggles to fill. Now summoned back by reports of break-ins to the isolated, long-abandoned cottage where Irwin claimed to have found his Muse, Gilliger struggles with writer’s block. After discovering hidden on the premises Irwin’s final manuscript The Truth Seeker, a torrid tale of adultery and murder, Gilliger is uncertain whether to appropriate it verbatim to fill his own blank pages, or to rewrite it into a posthumous collaboration with his father’s spirit, or simply to confine it to the fire (as Irwin himself often did with his more subpar scribblings).
Meanwhile, the old house keeps being invaded, whether by the estate agent Bryan Mitchell (Matthew Jure) who is a very keen fan of both father’s and son’s writing, or by the seductive Jane Lewis (Andrea Deck) and her bitterly jealous husband Patrick (Brendan Patricks), who are either Irwin’s (and now Gilliger’s) characters conjured to seeming life by Giliger’s delirious drunken binges, or genuine ghosts. For the deeper Gilliger delves both into his own childhood memories of his father, and into Irwin’s manuscript, the less sure he becomes of whether he is uncovering a true talent hidden within, or a long-buried murder mystery.
“Where did fiction stop and reality start?” types Gilliger. The viewer will share his disorientation, as Wilkins, who previously made 7 Lives (2011), takes us on a ‘journey’ through the creative process. For as in other ‘writer’s block’ films – the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink (1991), Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002), François Ozon’s Swimming Pool (2003), Megan Freels Johnston’s The Ice Cream Truck (2017) and Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear (2020) – here what Barton Fink called ‘the life of the mind’ is being externalised and dramatised as precisely the kind of reflexive mystery/ghost story that Gilliger is hammering out, where certainly some and arguably all of what we see taking place in fact exists only as a construct writ large somewhere between the author’s imagination and the words on the page. Yet in keeping with that other great work of writer’s block, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), there is also an axe prominent amongst the props and prompts in the late father’s cottage, and a hotel at the film’s beginning and end, leaving us to contemplate, as Gilligan becomes lost in rewriting both past and present, where exactly the border lies between Muse and madness.
strap: In Paul Wilkins’ meta murder mystery, a blocked novelist struggles to find his own voice in the shadow of his father’s influence
© Anton Bitel