Jeremy Renner is an actor again

In Kill the Messenger, Renner rises above most of his post-Hurt Locker roles — he’s been the shirtless superhero dude for too long.


Jeremy Renner in Kill the Messenger

As the Internet continues to disassemble the monoliths powering traditional print journalism, it’s also taking a subgenre of film with it: the investigative thriller, in which a single (or a pair, in All The President’s Men’s case) intrepid investigative journalist uncovers a massive conspiracy or government fuck-up and brings it to light. The Internet hasn’t made whistleblowing extinct, but it’s certainly made it less visually compelling. The late-’90s-set Kill the Messenger, based on the real-life story of reporter Gary Webb, takes All The President’s Men and recasts it as a tragedy, making Webb not only a whistleblower but a casualty of technology.

Webb (Jeremy Renner) works as a reporter for a small-time newspaper in San Jose, California. A piece on how police repossess drug dealers’ homes before their conviction leads him to Coral Baca (Paz Vega), the girlfriend of a prominent drug dealer who claims to have copious proof that her boyfriend was employed by the CIA to bring in drugs. Webb investigates this further and uncovers a tangled web of corruption involving the Nicaraguan Contras, Los Angeles drug dealers and the CIA. Webb eventually publishes a tell-all piece online titled Dark Alliance that brings him great praise, only to be discredited by other major press outlets. As a reporter whose most controversial work finds itself online, Webb is easily dismissed by both the government and major publications (oh, how times have changed). The scrutiny and subsequent demonizing sends Webb’s career, marriage and family life into a tailspin.

Kill-the-Messenger-Jeremy-RennerAt this point in time, Webb is probably better known for his untimely demise than his journalism; having been effectively blacklisted as a journalist for seven years following the Dark Alliance scandal, Webb put an end to his own life in 2004. Kill the Messenger isn’t all about that — the film ends around 1998, for one — but it has trouble reconciling the politics at its core with what eventually happened to Webb and mining that for emotional resonance. The film’s worst, most obvious moments come when the film plants seeds for the emotional turmoil in Webb’s life — when he’s demoted by his superiors (Oliver Platt and Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to a job in the Cupertino office (the journalism equivalent of a cop getting taken off the streets, it seems), his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) tearfully says goodbye to him while handing him a giant cardboard box with ‘PHOTOS – FAMILY STUFF’ scrawled on it. This isn’t exactly subtle, yet just one of about a dozen moments where director Michael Cuesta veers from poised political thriller to soapy melodrama.

As a political thriller, Kill the Messenger is frequently fascinating, ably weaving the various plot strands and warring factions in a compelling way. The supporting cast is terrific: Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael K Williams and Gil Bellows all appear in showy supporting roles, often for no longer than a single scene). Renner is finally able to sink his teeth into a proper leading role for the first time since The Hurt Locker, and he acquits himself well as the combustible Webb. It’s an actor’s performance rather than a movie star one, and Kill the Messenger makes a valid case towards Renner being the former, rather than a guy who should take his shirt off in superhero movies.

Considering that the film’s more kinetic moments are also its best, you’d assume that the director was someone along the lines of a Paul Greengrass or Ridley Scott. Strangely enough, director Michael Cuesta is much better known for his small, intimate independent films like L.I.E. and 12 and Holding. Cuesta is also a seasoned director of TV pilots and a major player in the first few seasons of Homeland — which is where, it seems, the brunt of Kill the Messenger’s problems stem from. It has the well-oiled efficiency of great pulp television without the freedom that film should ostensibly give it. It moves from plot point to plot point without pausing, leaving the emotional development of the characters to shortcuts and shit like aforementioned Box of Sadness. (It probably doesn’t help that the script is by a former journalist, either – it speaks its emotional core through headlines and pull quotes.)

Kill the Messenger, for all its flaws, is far from a terrible movie. It tells an important story without feeling like An Important Movie™. It features a compelling performance from Renner, finally getting to do something interesting after years of faceless blockbuster work (and American Hustle, where he was essentially the stuff happening under and around a haircut) and that’s really going to be what Kill the Messenger is remembered for, depending on how Renner’s career goes from this point: one of his good ones, or the one where he got back on the road to being an actor. ■


Kill the Messenger is in theatres now