Silver Linings and Grey Clouds – The Messenger

In assuaging his guilt, Fikri Jermadi finds silver linings in ‘The Messenger’.

In many respects, this is a terrible film.

I first came across this film as the filmmaker, Joshua Bywater, messaged the Young Filmmakers Forum, of which I was a member of its organising committee. He was trying to drum up some hype for his film, and his enthusiasm was infectious. Further discussion was conducted, resulting in an agreement for an interview, before… that slipped my mind as I focused on other things. Life.

Not long after the fact, I checked back with him, and discovered that the film is already online. I was actually quite excited, as it’s been a while since I jumped in blind into a film simply because someone had asked me to watch it. A lot of my viewing nowadays is largely functional; even those that are for fun usually come with some kind of pre-conditioning, letting us know exactly what we’re in for.

‘The Messenger’ is a different story. It tells of John Dawson (Harry Lovatt), a man working as a messenger for a shady organisation. This has been his job for over a decade, yet in this time he had found out little about them. With curiosity getting the better of this cat, John decides to open a message he was supposed to deliver, and discovers that the contents of this letter instructs for his removal.

Along the way, he is advised by his friend Mike (Louis Connell), an office worker who appears to have plenty of time to kill in the office. It’s a good thing, because there are plenty out there willing to kill John. He goes up against the likes of Tia Birch (playing the role of Assassin here) and Neon (performed by Joseph Jablonski), in trying to find out the ins and outs of his last 10 years.

The film kicks off with a scene of a man typing a letter. What stands out here, however, is the music composition by the director himself. Bywater, in addition to music scoring duties, also served as the film’s producer, cinematographer, co-editor and writer. Wearing many hats is, I’d argue, probably the best way to learn the filmmaking process, and here the music is a step in the right direction, with its twingy-twangy qualities recalling elements of a Western genre. It is not entirely irrelevant, as John is forced to essentially stand alone in the face of an (initially) unseen enemy.

I also quite like the performance of Louis Connell, who seems to be the best fit of an actor in this film relative to their character. His timely bonhomie provides a nice balance to Harry Lovatt’s far more serious take on a more serious issue. That proved to be the biggest downfall of this film, with a stark and sharp difference between the ambitions of this project and the level its makers actually reached.

A fair amount of this can be attributed to the aforementioned performances (and not necessarily the performers themselves). Quite frankly, there is a lack of gritty gravitas that life experience can provide. Most of the actors in this film is noticeably young at heart and in body, and while this can be an advantage, asking them to perform far beyond their life experiences is a call that should be far beyond their duty. It is a duty they performed all the same, but perhaps something of the reel life that’s closer to the real life should be considered for future projects.

The technical inconsistencies also hampered some scenes, with rapid changes in ambience and sound levels proving to be an inconvenience. Within the first few minutes of the film, John and Mike were talking on the phone. Such was the difference (between the silent indoors and the noisier outdoors) that I almost immediately removed my earphones, and went on watching the entire 40-minute film without them.

In a more filmic sense, there are also plenty of plot holes that made me wonder whether a troubleshooting session was held prior to its filming. It seemed inconceivable, for instance, that John would suddenly be curious about this issue after having done it for ten years. That’s not a short period of time, and further exploration and exposition into the reasons why would have made this story more complete. Perhaps more time spent showing his life beyond this issue would also help. This would entail a longer running time, but with that running time comes a greater potential this film would have a better chance of fulfilling.

‘The Messenger’ is the kind of film that requires a greater level of emoting and connection between its characters and audience members, and I believe that this film, in its current version, falls short of doing that. The camerawork in some scenes, for instance, was so disruptive that I had a minor headache not dissimilar to the first time I played Counter Strike many moons ago; if I were to be his lecturer, I recommend him sticking his camera on sticks and minimising its movement while maximising what you see. Let the scene, actors and elements work for you and the camera, rather than the other way around.

So why am I writing about the film? There is a degree of guilt, as lined out in the introduction above, which I wished to address. There is also the creation of content on films beyond these shores, and the wish to support young filmmakers taking tentative steps deeper into their careers.

More to the point, however… I was actually excited. I enjoyed watching films I know very little about, and discovering new things, as detailed in the introduction. At the same time, watching ‘The Messenger’ reminded me of my own first film, ‘Goldfish’. Also lacking in technical competency, it nevertheless was the first complete original narrative film of my career, and the starting point for everything else that came after that fact. That starting point is the purest form of expression I believe any filmmaker will experience, prior to being influenced/poisoned (delete as appropriate) by the conventionality of film language and rules.

‘The Messenger’ was made by a 17-year-old student, studying at Calderdale College in Halifax, England. The cast members were all, at the time of filming, between the ages of 16 and 19. In an act of dedication, this was a film brought home after shooting on alternate weekends. “We have been filming every other Saturday to fit in with different people’s timetables,” said Bywater. That was precisely the same protocol Christopher Nolan practiced with ‘Following’, relying very much on the trust and good faith of people in the making of this project. Therein lies the key to appreciating ‘The Messenger’. While there remains much to be considered before this film can even be regarded as competent, one thing that shines brightly for me is its sincerity. For me, that is a rare quality to be found amongst films in general.

Plus, he managed to get this film screened on the big screen at Rex Cinema in Coronation Street in Elland, back in his native England. It’s a one-off screening, and I’m not sure what the arrangement for that might have been, but… bloody hell. I waited for nine years for a film of mine to be shown on the big screen when it was actually selected for a screening (as opposed to a film school film festival, where it would have been screened anyways), so for Bywater to have accomplished this feat with his first film is astounding, and a testament to the character of the young man.

His next film is ‘Young Hope’. It tells the story of a homeless man who seeks to change his life with his creativity. In terms of age, it already seems to be a greater match of reel life with real life. That’s something I’m looking forward to in December.

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