The Messenger follows Jack (Robert Sheehan), the titular protagonist, who delivers messages from the ghosts of the recently-deceased to their bereaved loved ones. Only he can see those ghosts. Following the murder of a prominent war correspondent Mark (Alex Wyndham), Mark’s ghost tasks Jack with giving his wife an important message.
Despite a premise that is reminiscent of M Night Shyamalan’s 1999 film The Sixth Sense (including an ironical reference of some characters being able to ‘see dead people’), and despite The Messenger being advertised as a supernatural horror film, what actually unfolds is a sophisticated study of the experience of schizophrenia, its misunderstanding by society, and the associated prevalent stigma.
Instead of dwelling on the supernatural, the film’s central focus is portraying Jack’s personal experience, his family and social background and behavioural motivations.
Jack suffers from auditory and visual hallucinations for which he is medicated and undergoing psychotherapy. It is ambiguous at first whether or not the people with whom he communicates are indeed ghosts or just hallucinations. The film follows Jack’s perspective quite closely, committing to the idea of ghosts, but nevertheless challenges this perspective by emphasising its conflicting nature with the lived reality of people around Jack.
Interestingly it is not so much the possible presence of the supernatural that is central to the film’s plot as much as Jack’s turbulent relationship with his family and exploration of his tragic past. There are strong indications that following a traumatic experience as a child, Jack started seeing and hearing dead people. The story unfolds through the therapeutic encounters with his psychiatrist (Joley Richardson) as the two of them work together to uncover the trauma that is at the heart of Jack’s condition.
The imagery that represents Jack’s dialogue with his psychiatrist is particularly evocative. He is depicted as walking (or sometimes running) through a deserted field, shouting over the deafening wind, while his psychiatrist’s questions are voiced over. As an image, this conveys his despair, isolation, confusion and frustration at being unable to make sense of his experience.
It also signifies his attempts to run away from traumatic memories striving to reach a coherent understanding of his self. This depiction of Jack’s underlying mental illness is particularly sympathetic to the pain that he suffers in confronting his past, and it portrays the chaotic nature of his struggle to overcome the constant hallucinations.
Many of Jack’s relationships suffer because of his affliction; he is abandoned by his mother and remanded into a psychiatric institution, he is estranged from his sister, he confronts the police and the families of those who recently died. He has no friends; his sole company are the dead people whose messages he carries. His isolation and insecurity make him increasingly paranoid. His “supernatural” experiences are radically at odds with the reality of those around him; nobody close to him understands his agony or shows him any sympathy. His immediate family cannot cope, and his only support comes in the form of his psychiatrist.
Ultimately, the film makes an important point about empathy. In one of their sessions, Jack’s psychiatrist insists on maintaining a crucial distinction: she reassures him that she does not think that he is lying, but genuinely believes instead that “he thinks what he sees and hears is true”. This emphasis on a relative truth shows her appreciation of the authenticity of “his account of reality”.
It is this empathy that allows them to uncover the underlying cause of Jack’s pain and gradually work towards its resolution. Similarly, his relationship with his sister changes profoundly as she gradually begins to understand his condition, and they both begin a slow process of healing.
Far from being a horror film or a thriller, The Messenger is a sensitive and astute exploration of schizophrenia from a patient’s perspective. It is especially compelling in the case it makes for empathising with patients and trying to understand how fraught their experience of reality is. The film categorisation into these genres does a great disservice to the film, especially considering it is quite sparing in its use of thriller and horror tropes. It is far more provocative when seen as a humane film about mental illness and a patient’s struggle to overcome it.
Review by: Vivek Santayana, postgraduate student at the English Literature Department at the University of Edinburgh
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