Title: The Messenger
Director: David Blair
Major Players: Robert Sheehan, Lily Cole, Joely Richardson
Out Of Five: 3
It’s nearly 20 years since M Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense gave us the catch phrase “I see dead people”. And, while it doesn’t put in appearance in David Blair’s The Messenger, it certainly wouldn’t be out of place. Because this is a British take on the same idea, despite the efforts of the film’s publicity team to disguise it.
Jack (Robert Sheehan) is a solitary young man obsessed with mysterious deaths, the press cuttings about which are plastered all over his walls. Everybody around him regards him as being either odd or having a mental illness – he appears to talk to himself – but that’s not how he sees it. He’s haunted by the ghosts of dead people wanting him to communicate on their behalf to those they’ve left behind. But trying to deliver these messages gets him into all sorts of trouble, as well as scrambling his already fragile mind, and it all comes to a head with the death of a crusading journalist.
Having psychic powers of whatever description is often described as a gift. For Jack, it’s a curse. He’s grubby and scruffy, estranged from his sister and family, despite her efforts, and not especially sociable. The dark circles under his eyes and his general appearance could be interpreted as signs of addiction, but they’re the result of his involvement with those ghosts. He can see them as well, but nobody else can. And the audience is allowed to see things from both points of view, watching him talk to the ghosts and then seeing the same scene through the eyes of others in the film, so that he looks like he’s talking – very vigorously – to himself.
The Sixth Sense parallels continue in flashbacks, showing Jack as a young boy. They often echo the main storyline, showing how he became aware of his powers and grew into the young man he’s become. His father’s suicide, his mother’s behaviour and re-marriage, his move into care when he becomes unmanageable are all there. And there’s another young boy, his nephew, with whom he gets on well. And it’s highly likely that he’s following in his uncle’s footsteps.
The real reason for watching this is Robert Sheehan’s central performance, the glue that holds it together. He’s magnetic, looking so thin and fragile you’d think he could physically snap at any moment and his mind comes perilously close. It’s a performance of huge energy and commitment and promises much for the future. Not that the rest of the cast aren’t any good, but Sheehan is head and shoulders above them: yet it’s a testament to their joint efforts that the end result isn’t lopsided.
Yes, The Messenger is derivative and doesn’t have that much more to say about people who are cursed with the gift, if you like. It barely scratches the surface of people’s attitudes to mental illness. But it doesn’t set out to examine that subject, rather than to create some thrills and chills. It falls short on that, though, and is certainly not the horror movie that some of the blurb claims. That doesn’t prevent it from having a hold, but it’s reliant on Sheehan’s acting.
Don’t shoot The Messenger: he deserves our sympathy. The film needs a sharp dig in the ribs.
The Messenger is released in cinemas on Friday 18 September and will be reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 17 September.