Kill The Messenger
by Ken Carrell
TL;DR – Based on a true story, an investigative journalist for the San Jose Mercury News, Gary Webb, probes into CIA’s workings in drug distribution during the 1980’s. Jeremy Renner delivers a very memorable performance, tying together a relatively sturdy script and decent directing, creating a solid, if somewhat forgettable, film.
Once the credits rolled, the entire theatre applauded. It’s definitely a good film. Warranting applause? Meh. However, Jeremy Renner could take home his third Oscar nomination for this one (or he would if the film was a little better).
Based on a true story, this is about Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), an investigative journalist who breaks the story of how the CIA was directly involved in the distribution of crack cocaine in the 1980’s. Because this story broke during the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, the media mostly ignored it. To add insult to injury, the major media networks, rather than break their own version of the story, tore apart Webb’s and drove the man to the brink of insanity.
The standout attribute of this film is Renner’s incredibly honest performance. There’s never any point where it’s too much or too little; he manages to get it just right in every single scene. Rosemarie Dewitt’s and Lucas Hedges’s portray Webb’s wife and son, respectively. Hedges does great while Dewitt is a touch flat. She doesn’t do badly, but there seems to be a somewhat “blankness” to her performance, as if she’s waiting for the next line to be said so she can act. To be clear, it’s not a bad performance, but it’s an easy target when Renner is on screen dominating the show.
Oliver Pratt and Mary Elizabeth Winstead both bring great performances as well. Robert Patrick makes a cameo early in the first act (you’ll always be T-1000 to me) and Ray Liotta has a fantastically memorable cameo. The acting is overall really solid for this film with a very talented cast.
Michael Cuesta’s direction is solid. Certain parts of the film are so brilliantly subtle that if you weren’t thinking about it, you might not notice them. The film makes excellent work of splicing together archive footage with its own production footage to create a seamless continuity. One of my favorite little moments was seeing a 1990’s Chris Matthews interviewing Renner. Once you remember that Renner wasn’t actually in that interview, you realize how clever that moment is. There are a few of these peppered throughout the film.
Filmgoers be warned, however. Some scenes are very subtextual. Something like a subtle head nod or a look tell volumes about the situation so if you blink or sneeze at just the wrong moment, you may miss something important. I can appreciate these from an artistic standpoint, but it makes for a storyline that can get confusing if you miss too many of them. This deserves more praise than blame, though; subtext is hard to add and they did it well.
Where the film struggles, however, is in the story. It’s not bad, but it’s not great. It’s kind of just…bleh. There’s nothing that makes it pop. The highlight moments are where Renner really brings the acting juice, but he doesn’t have to work very hard to make these moments great. If your lead doesn’t have to work very hard to outshine your script, your script needs work.
Very little of Webb’s trek through the dangerous waters of investigative journalism is shown, which is unfortunate considering that in there lies the crux of what could have made this story so great. Instead, we see a lot of the in-between. Also, genre-lovers will grit their teeth a little, as it never sticks it foot entirely into either political drama or a solid biopic, but for those to whom genre is less important (such as myself), it’s a solid film that I definitely recommend.