The Messenger (2015)

First published by Sight & Sound, October 2015


Synopsis: An English coastal town, the present. Off-his-meds drifter Jack sees the dead, and reluctantly helps them communicate with the living. The recently murdered journalist Mark asks Jack to send a goodbye message to his grieving wife Sarah. Observing her, Jack realises that she is pregnant. Jack also reunites with his estranged sister Emma, who is back in town where her husband Martin is serving as Sarah’s attorney. Their young son Billy reveals to Jack that he too sees the ghost of a drowned boy. Jack visits Sarah and tells her of Mark’s awareness that she is pregnant, only for a distraught Sarah, after calling the police, to divulge that the baby is not in fact Mark’s. Jack is arrested, and after being seen raving violently (at the invisible Mark) in the holding cell, is re-institutionalised. There his psychiatrist reveals to Martin that, ever since Jack had, as a boy, found the body of his suicidal father, his sense of guilt and loss had driven him to create multiple personalities (imagined by him as ghosts) through which he maintains the fantasy of helping other bereaved people, ultimately in the hope of seeing his father’s ghost again. Warned by Mark, Jack insists that Sarah must be saved from a suicide attempt. Indeed, PCI Keane finds Sarah near dead from a suicide attempt in her apartment. He also finds, and covers up, Mark’s recorded Skype message about a state conspiracy. Jack remains in a psychiatric hospital. The drowned boy visits Billy.

Review: “I see dead people,” reveals disturbed 9-year-old Cole (Haley Joel Osment) to his child psychologist in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999), before being encouraged to embrace his special talent and make tentative approaches to the departed.

“I may see dead people, but then, by God, I do something about it!” declares the eponymous hero (Anton Yelchin) of Odd Thomas (2013), who is like a grown-up Cole, perkily confident in his supernatural abilities and proactive in resolving the unfinished business of the dead.

Then there is Jack (Robert Sheehan), of whom The Messenger forms a fragmentary case study. A little older than both Cole and Odd, muttering, manic Jack shares their ability to see the dead, but just wishes these persistent spirits would leave him alone, and only helps them to be rid of them. “They never go away!” he complains to his sceptical psychiatrist (Joely Richardson) – although she, until the film’s third act, is a disembodied presence, no more visible to those around him than the the ghostly uninvited guests who seek his intermediary services. Jack’s dialogues with her take place as we see him walking and talking furiously in liminal spaces (estuaries, clifftops, grassy windswept coastlines), alienated in wideshot and utterly alone. She may not be a ghost, but she is clearly a voice of reason that Jack has learnt to internalise over many sessions. Meanwhile, the recently dead – like murdered journalist Mark Lewis (Jack Fox) – also regularly converse with Jack, insisting that he pass on final messages to their loved ones. There is nothing ghostly about their banal, FX-free appearance, but Jack, off his meds, alone sees and hears them – and this wide-eyed, messy individual’s interventions with the living tend not to end well.

Director David Blair is probably best known for the drama Best Laid Plans (2012) or for his extensive television work, but The Messenger explores similar themes – only in a less comic mode – to his earlier feature Mystics (2003), which followed a pair of old con artists claiming to have a direct line to the dead. Jack’s attempts to get closer to Mark’s grieving widow Sarah (Tamzin Merchant) are intercut with flashbacks to his own traumatic, loss-filled childhood, and with scenes of his awkward reunion with estranged older sister Emma (Lily Cole), her upwardly mobile lawyer husband Martin (Alex Wyndham), and their young son Billy (Alfie Pettit-Page) – who seems to share Jack’s affliction. The result is a clash of perspectives, as Jack’s visionary way of construing the world around him comes up against the different views of psychiatry and the constabulary, all competing to locate (or conceal) an ambiguous truth – and the past, as so often in tales of ghosts (or of mental illness), keeps getting projected onto the present.

Beautifully shot and disorientingly edited, The Messenger ends up leaving viewers to decide for themselves whether they have just witnessed an English reimagining of The Sixth Sense, or of The Voices (2015). Either way, it is a haunting affair.

Anton Bitel