KILL THE MESSENGER. Jeremy Renner, Rosmarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt. Directed by Michael Cuesta. 112 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes, drug references and coarse language).
A passion project for star and producer Jeremy Renner, 'Kill the Messenger' is an adaption of a true story which bridles with anger at its central conspiracy. Its story is not perfectly judged, but a strong ensemble cast elevate the material.
Opening in California in 1996, we are introduced to our protagonist, investigative journalist Gary Webb (Renner). We meet him in the midst of a probe into the seizure of suspected drug dealers' property by the DEA, before they are even convicted. Webb works for a small paper, the San Jose Mercury News, under his beleaguered editor Anna (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and boss Jerry (Oliver Platt). Once his story is published, he is approached by an accused dealer's girlfriend, with a grand jury transcript which was accidentally turned over by the DPP in discovery. The transcript suggests that the accused dealer's supplier, Danilo Blandon, was working with the US government to import crack cocaine from Nicaragua. Shocked and intrigued, Webb collaborates with the dealer's lawyer to gain more information from Blandon during cross-questioning of the witness. He says that the CIA were supporting the drug trade, on the condition that profits were funnelled back into Nicaragua to supply weapons for the anti-Communist Contra groups in the 1980s. Essentially, the poor, largely black populations in America with horrific crack epidemics could have their drug supply traced back to the US government.
As Webb keeps pushing through this investigation, he uncovers more and more shocking links. This early part of the film is the strongest, moving along in leaps and bounds following a true narrative which simply beggars belief. It's tightly edited by Brian A. Kates, and scored with a nicely varied, propulsive sound from Nathan Johnson.
By the end of the first act, Webb has shored up his leads and goes to press, generating huge international attention and making waves across America, particularly in government circles and the African-American communities who have struggled with drug problems for many years. Webb begins receiving attention from the CIA, and when veiled threats are levelled at his wife (Rosmarie DeWitt) and family, he begins to sink into paranoia. This is expounded by national media outlets, who – incensed at not having cracked the story first – aim to undermine his research, his story and his personal life.
While the second part of the film becomes a personal story of tragedy, it sits a little oddly alongside the fascinating political thriller making up the first. Director Michael Cuesta knows how to direct both parts of the story strongly, happy to play fast and furious or quiet and careful when the differing approaches are appropriate, but overall there is a tonal inconsistency. This problem belongs to the script, but being based on a true story it is difficult to level this criticism with much blame. Cuesta also manages to elicit great performances from the massive ensemble he has assembled.
Renner is solid in the lead, both relatable and wretched, as is DeWitt as his wife. Particular mentions must go to Lucas Hedges as Webb's son Ian, who shares a brilliant, heartbreaking scene with his father, and Ray Liotta, who appears in a well-judged, electric cameo. Sean Bobbitt's golden cinematography is also a strong asset.
When the final information appears across the screen after the final scene, the indignant anger that the film hopes to ignite in the audience flares up one last time. I left the theatre with this burning strong, and I believe it may be taken as a sign of a good political thriller, a genre which often aims to elicit such a response. An unbelievable true story and good work in front of and behind the camera make this an above average example of this type of film.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out October 30.