I rarely find myself in this situation, but when I sat down to watch Kill the Messenger I had no clue as to what it was about or even the vaguest idea of the genre. Being in that state feels old-fashioned to me and therefore oddly comforting; to not be slumped down in one’s chair thinking, “Here we go…” half-knowing that the latest Melissa McCarthy comedy is going to be dishearteningly bad. For those of you reading this that are in a similar situation, here’s a little briefing: Jeremy Renner stars as a small-time investigative journalist for the San Jose Mercury News whose series of stories traced links between CIA-financed Nicaraguan contra rebels and the American inner-city crack cocaine epidemic. It’s a true story though I hadn’t heard of it prior and so the title card “Based on a True Story” coupled with actual news footage during the opening credits was very helpful indeed. Renner’s character, Gary Webb, is a cool 90s dad (well-worn jeans, unkempt shaggy hair, often nimbly hopping in a little convertible) and is married (to the always languidly sexy Rosemarie DeWitt) with kids who all seem to grudgingly accept his new globe-trotting, fairly perilous career.
The story is plays out through Webb’s perspective for the most part, and Renner for once plays something other than his tightly-wound, pensive action hero. (Side note: I feel like Jeremy Renner would be a very reliable actor to hire. He’d work hard, he’d be charming and appropriately flirty and he would always thank everyone for a great day.) I’m sure audiences will have no expectations as to how Gary Webb really was, so there isn’t any kind of impersonation-critiquing on the line. And the epilogue features touching home video footage of Webb goofing around with his kids, therefore the family must have had some kind of say in the portrayal/story; the portrait of Webb is just gritty and unflattering enough. As for the rest of the cast, they’re quietly first-rate actors who we haven’t seen enough of lately: Paz Vega, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Michael Sheen (who is rather good) and it was lovely to see Tim Blake Nelson as a bumbling attorney.
One thing that stands out is the somewhat inconsistent look and feel of the film. There are similar films whose camerawork purely serve plot/action and then there are those that employ more of an obvious, arty style and Kill the Messenger was a capricious mix. During one scene I was completely ignoring the cinematography and then suddenly would be faced with, say, a tight shot of Renner on a motorcycle speeding down a bridge on an overcast day and my stomach kind of flipped a bit. The emotion is lacking and in watching it was a bit hard to gauge Webb’s driving forces behind his tenacity to stick to the (somewhat dangerous) piece–he didn’t seem overly ambitious for a journalist or insane or really attached to the morality behind everything. And I didn’t think once about the film on the streetcar ride home which might say something about my scattered way of thinking, but probably points to the film’s overall dullness.