“I see dead people.”

Remember that little kid from The Sixth Sense?

Imagine he grew up.

Imagine he still saw dead people.

Imagine no one believed him.

And imagine he grew up into a filthy, alcoholic tramp bumming around a Northern town, rocking up to the funerals of the recently deceased to drunkenly pass on farewell messages to their living loved ones, causing chaos and then drinking himself into a stupor in front of the telly in his shabby bed-sit.

That’s pretty much the plot of veteran TV director David Blair’s The Messenger.

Haunted by childhood trauma and, quite literally, by the dead, Jack (Robert Sheehan) is a soul in greater turmoil than the phantoms who fill his waking hours, begging him for help, forcing him to contact their loved ones in order to find closure.

As Jack starts to build a relationship with his long estranged sister Emma (Lily Cole), he’s visited by the spirit of talented war reporter Mark (Jack Fox) who was found dead just yards from his flat, an apparent suicide. Mark wants Jack to pass on a message to his grieving widow, TV personality Sarah (Tamzin Merchant). Mark wants Jack to tell her he loves her. And that he didn’t kill himself. He was murdered.

But as Jack obsessively reaches out to Sarah, can he really see the dead or is he delusional, his traumatic experiences as a child warping his sense of reality? Is he a danger? To Sarah? To Emma? To himself?

Attractively shot but, at times, thumpingly, face-slappingly obvious, The Messenger is an infuriating 90-odd minutes, never quite sure if it’s a ghost story, a murder mystery, a conspiracy thriller or a thoughtful character study of grief, the script coyly introducing plot-lines and characters but never quite bringing itself to commit to any of them, lacking the confidence to deliver on the promise of the film’s early scenes as Sheehan’s squalid, reluctant psychic haunts funerals, is battered by mourners and banned from his local for talking to the invisible dead, ostracised by all around him.

It’s almost as if the filmmakers are embarrassed by the story’s supernatural elements, contemptuous or scared of the horror audience. Which is a shame as that’s the film’s audience.

Mistaking a lack of clarity for subtlety and mystery, the script offers few surprises, Blair failing to give the off-kilter little ghost story any real thrust, wasting the talents of Lily Cole, Joely Richardson (as Jack’s psychiatrist) and the gloriously gruff David O’Hara as an ambiguous cop. But Sheehan can’t help himself, seizing the film by the throat and wrestling it to the ground as if in an act of creative desperation. Magnetic and mercurial, his Jack both pathetic and persuasive, Sheehan’s charismatic, ferociously driven performance drags The Messenger, almost against its will, into more melancholy territory.

Enjoyable but ultimately undemanding, Sheehan’s powerhouse performance makes The Messenger an absorbing study of unresolved grief.

Movie Review: The Messenger
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