Issue 25 (2009)

Karen Oganesian: The Ghost (Domovoi, 2008)

reviewed by Jamilya Nazyrova © 2009

The idea of a face to face meeting between a writer and his character is imaginative, but by no means original. The creators of the suspense thriller, The Ghost, are obviously not afraid of the beaten path. The box-office totals of recent films produced by Timur Bekmambetov, the leader of the new trend in Russian cinema, prove that it’s all right if a film smells a trifle musty and recycles elements of Hollywood productions of past decades.

domovoiThe film is about Anton, the author of a crime fiction series, whose hero is a professional killer nicknamed the Ghost (Domovoi). As he signs his books in a library, Anton witnesses a murder committed by a professional killer. The killer, who later turns out to be the Ghost himself, meets Anton afterward and offers him a story from real life. Suffering from serious writer's block and feeling his own writing to be forced and untrue to life, Anton eagerly accepts the offer of collaboration. Eventually, he has an opportunity to try professional murder himself and offers the Ghost a challenge: they will randomly select a victim whom Anton will track down. For Anton to make his “kill,” he has to get the victim alone with no witnesses.

Oganesian’s film cannot claim to be original because it appears after such Hollywood cult productions as Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992)and Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999), with which it shares basic plot elements. Like the lead in Basic Instinct, Anton feels the need to live through a crime in order to write about it and, as in Fight Club, the plot is based on the tension between a weak loser and his double, a cool and manly character produced by his own imagination. Of course, these story blocks in Oganesian’s film are arranged differently and may convey a different message: here the writer only pretends to kill, the Ghost is a real person whose story inspired the writer to create his series, and the access to violence unleashes the evil side of Anton's self, which he must then overcome. Nevertheless, the air of familiarity and cliché is indispensable to the film.

domovoiIn addition to the frame—a story focused on the relationship of a writer to his writing—there is also a second plot, an intrigue, which ends with a shocking and unexpected revelation. Hidden beneath the surface until the climactic scene, in which the writer pretends to kill the victim, this plot is built on the laws of suspenseful filmmaking. It resembles the famous move in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), where one of the characters creates a plot which another character enacts without realizing it. The killer in The Ghost has been hired by the mafia and a general prosecutor to get rid of a dangerous witness. He anticipates that the prosecutor has ordered him traced and killed afterwards. He reassigns this killing to Anton and secretly guides the writer in a supposedly random choice of victim. Trying to play the killer's double, Anton becomes a dummy in the killer's play. When the writer happily pretends to kill the victim in a public restroom by pointing two fingers through the stall door, the real killer kills the victim from behind Anton's back.

The last part of the film returns to the author-character relationship and moral dilemmas of a detective writer, and the killer's interest in Anton's work becomes the main trigger of the plot. The more this plot thickens, the more the story becomes farfetched and artificial. The Ghost saves Anton from the mafia, but kidnaps him and orders him to finish the book in two days; otherwise the Ghost will kill Anton's girlfriend and son. In the meantime, the Ghost suddenly becomes a voice of moral judgment over Anton, pointing out his cruel indifference toward those he thinks he loves. It turns out that the killer is a philosopher who is fond of existentialist ideas (Liudi vsegda odni, i bol'she vsekh oni nenavidiat tekh, kto riadom; "People are always alone and they hate those who are near them the most"), and also passionately hates evil. He reads Anton frightening criminal facts from a newspaper and adds one from Anton's own life that we did not know before: after his divorce, the writer placed his son, who was suffering terrible headaches, in a mental hospital because he could not stand being interrupted in his writing. In spite of the situation, Anton, who must have extraordinary nerve or ironclad inspiration, finishes the book while the killer is exterminating the mafia. As soon as these two tasks are complete, the killer disappears again, allegedly burned to death in his house. But he lets Anton escape, and Anton's flash drive containing the manuscript survives as well.

domovoiIn the final sequence, the spectator has one final revelation to take in. The book is published with the Ghost's portrait on the cover, and Anton, who has become a respectable writer, is giving a press conference. Suddenly, in a slow-motion scene scored by an expressive, gypsy-like song, Anton looks at the window and rushes out of the room to his new car. The rest of the sequence is shot over Anton's shoulder and the spectator senses that the writer is not alone. Anton meets his girlfriend and son by the pond and they go off-camera together. In the few moments that show only the empty pond, the Ghost enters the frame from the opposite side and looks in the direction in which the family departed. He makes some gestures whose details are not clear to the spectator because the image is zoomed out. It is quite possible that the Ghost shoots Anton and throws the gun into the pond. The ending is therefore deliberately open to interpretation. There is no telling whether the killer comes to kill Anton after he publishes the book about him—the book whose publication might be the reason why the Ghost saved his life earlier, or whether the scene is meant to symbolize the parting of character and author.

domovoiBased on the cerebral elements of materialized metaphor (writing as a living; the writer as the author of his characters' crimes and vices), The Ghost lacks valid psychological motivation, presents no logical character development, and contains unnecessary retardations. Although little camera time is spent on intellectual discussions, quite a few conversations focus on the writing business and truth.  In view of these obvious deficiencies, the director's main hope is the cast, which is talented, professional, natural, and last but not least—so famous that simply showing the actors in their typical roles immediately wins over their fans.

Despite the fact that the two leading actors, Konstantin Khabenskii (the writer) and Vladimir Mashkov (the killer), need only play themselves from their other films, they are brilliant—one as a degraded, alcoholic intellectual and the other, endowed with irresistible manly charm, as a cool professional with a gun.  

domovoiYet there are roles in the film that even good acting cannot save, such as that of Anton's girlfriend, Vika, played by the beautiful and talented Chulpan Khamatova, the only female character in this male-dominated production. Anton's frustrated girlfriend is simply unpleasant, easily breaking into hysterical yelling and excessive rudeness. On the other hand, in suffering real violence, she is unnaturally compliant, such as when the drunken Anton rapes her. Suddenly and without any persuasive psychological motivation, however, she transforms into a meek and supportive partner with a quiet voice, supposedly because she realizes that Anton's life is in danger. The character's appearance is emphatically opposed to that of a glamorous diva, but no sensible style is created in its place: her dark, dull and unstylish costumes fail to define her character's social type and look only like a series of poor choices, perhaps a consequence of the film's low budget.

Although The Ghost is explicit in its aspiration to be viewed as a typical Hollywood thriller, it has many problems that similar Hollywood productions are careful to avoid. Two such difficulties are dialogue and editing. Given the film’s pretensions to intellectual depth, the dialogue is striking in its banality. For example, when Anton interviews the killer in order to learn more about his profession, he asks what is important in his work (“Chto dlia tebia vazhno v tvoei rabote?”), and receives an obvious response: “Everything is important except emotions (“Da, vse vazhno, krome emotsii”). As if not understanding why emotions might be a problem, Anton continues inquiring and receives an equally banal answer: “They interfere with the job; count to one and you're gone” (“rabote meshaiut, raz—i tebia uzhe net”). The writer seems truly surprised to discover this, and his face suggests he struggles to comprehend it. However, he continues to prompt Mashkov's character with his persistently idiotic questions, eliciting no less pointless answers: “But the main thing is the result, right?” (“No glavnoe, eto vse-taki resul'tat, da?”). The response “You see, it is possible to “execute” anyone, but it takes skill not to get caught” (Ponimaesh', ispolnit' mozhno liubogo, a vot ne popast'sia nado eshche sumet')—might suggest the reason why the killer creates his plot, yet it is far from revealing any esoteric truth.

domovoiContinuity editing has never been a priority in Russian cinema, and in this film the elements of discontinuous editing, such as energetic montage sequences based on cross-cutting, make the storytelling fast-paced and economical. However, obvious editing faults sometimes interfere with clarity.  In the restaurant footage—a montage sequence that includes Anton's meetings with the killer in three different restaurants—the characters are always shown as they sit at the table and talk. The sequence begins in the first restaurant with a profile shot of the killer and the writer, sitting opposite each other, with the window positioned in front of the camera in the background. This shot is followed by a series of close-ups, in which each of the characters is shown alone as he speaks, but now the window is positioned behind each character's back.  Although the sequence is set in three different locations, it is difficult to distinguish among them, which may create the impression of one very lengthy conversation. This difficulty in following location changes is due to the fact that Mashkov's character wears the same outfit in each scene. The shift can be noticed only if the viewer pays close attention to Khabenskii's clothes and to the settings.

In spite of the obvious faults and problems of The Ghost, this young director’s film will probably win over general audiences. The reason is that its niche—an entertaining Russian film trying to infuse a Hollywood model with distinct national flavor—is far from saturated. The path that Oganesian and Bekmambetov are taking is reasonable, especially in terms of commercial success, but it is not the only possible one.  The future will show how Russian cinema develops, but one possible direction The Ghost suggests is that remakes of Hollywood hits are worth trying, alongside the recycling of secondhand material.

Jamilya Nazyrova
University of Southern California

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The Ghost, Russia, 2008
Color, 100 min.
Scriptwriter: Oleg Malovichko, Sergei Iudakov
Director: Karen Oganesian
Director of Photography: Zaur Bolotaev
Composers: David Abuladze, Ucha Gugunava, “Insight,” Gocha Kacheishvili, Nino Katamadze
Production Design: Ul’iana Riabova
Costume Design: Irina Gashdankina
Sound: Aleksandr Kopeikin
Editing: Karen Oganesian
Cast: Konstantin Khabenskii, Vladimir Mashkov, Chulpan Khamatova, Armen Dzhigarkhanian, Vitalii Kishchenko, Anatolii Semenov, Ramil' Sabitov, Aleksandr Chutko, Sergei Gazarov
Producer: Ruben Dishdishian, Anna Melikian
Production: “Magnum”

Karen Oganesian: The Ghost (Domovoi, 2008)

reviewed by Jamilya Nazyrova © 2009

Updated: 11 Jul 09