The Messenger (2015): Film Review
Posted on September 17, 2015
This supernatural mystery thriller offers a bleak, psychological take on the ‘I see dead people’ genre that plays with perception for maximum thrills.
Cinema is fascinated with spirit mediums. From the elderly sisters in Don’t Look Now (1973) to eight-year-old Cole in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999), to Whoopie Goldberg’s con-artist in Ghost (1990), mediums and their movies have received diverse treatment at the hands of filmmakers.
Now David Blair’s The Messenger, treats this ‘gift’ as an affliction. Jack (Robert Sheehan) can see dead people but his attempts to help them have led to a bad reputation: he talks to himself and people say he stalks bereaved women. Jack can’t escape the apparitions (who look as alive as you or I) and by the time the film opens, he’s already emotionally and mentally unravelling.
Blair’s film is essentially about perception and perspective and he experiments with the idea of Jack’s ‘affliction’ by fusing the supernatural realm with the scientific domain of psychiatry. Whether Jack is actually a spirit medium or, more plausibly, mentally ill, reverberates around the film from the get-go. It’s a riveting concept and the urban landscape of tunnels and train-lines adds to the film’s raw, realist tone.
“A riveting concept with a raw, realist tone”
The Messenger is a world away from Hollywood’s The Sixth Sense. Rather than playing for scares, Blair (Best Laid Plans) draws darkness from a deep psychological recess. He opens with two tragic deaths and multiplies Jack’s frustrating encounters with the dead until he’s able to condense them into an intense and claustrophobic momentary flash.
Blair doesn’t leave us in a static therapist’s chair either. Instead, he splices Jack’s vociferous replies into the action, tracking him as he charges through fields and natural landscapes, his feelings gushing out in volatile and impulsive rants. The motion drags us into Jack’s unpredictable, turbulent mindset while the change of setting provides a visual escape from the claustrophobic city that mirrors his own mental and emotional release.
As Jack, Robert Sheehan (Misfits, Red Riding trilogy, The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones) delivers a complex emotional stew of irritation, misery and rage but manages to keep his character lucid with smart, barbed commentary and sarcastic remarks. We’re never quite sure whose perception of him is real: his therapist’s, his family’s, or his own.
It’s Jack’s involvement in the local murder of a television war correspondent that forms the meat of The Messenger’s plot and it’s here where cliche begins to creep in. Writer Andrew Kirk (making his feature-length debut) is able to keep many of the ‘ghost genre’ banalities in check – Jack even mocks his dead acquaintances for their ‘unfinished business’ – but gives us too many overused plot devices. At the time of his murder, Mark (Jack Fox) is on the brink of a big news story which goes right to the top, while his widow (Tamzin Merchant) makes a cumbersome, heartfelt television appeal for witnesses.
“Impressively managed ambiguity: we’re never quite sure what’s real”
Despite drawing on the ‘financially successful but unhappy couple’ stereotype with which to compare Jack’s lonely, impoverished existence, Kirk’s treatment of family is more interesting. The return of Jack’s estranged sister Emma (Lily Cole) is a catalyst for re-examining the impact of childhood and Kirk jumbles up the timeframe to develop an increasingly complex picture of Jack’s life.
The subtle connections between past and present, along with a number of well-handled coincidences add weight to the psychiatric perspective on Jack’s ‘abilities’, while a scattering of unanswered questions mean we’re never entirely sure what to believe. This impressively managed ambiguity ensures The Messenger can only be fully appreciated as the credits roll and, like all classic supernatural mysteries that come before it, The Messenger demands a second viewing.
VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ 4/5
Running time: 98 minutes
UK release date: 18 September 2015. Also available to stream online the same time as cinemas.