Another scary house movie, another family in crisis. And especially, another lithe but steely girl in danger. In The Messengers, she is Jess (Kristen Stewart), immediately marked as having “messed up” in the recent past. Her bad behavior sent her baby brother to the hospital, her mother into resentful silence, and her father into some financial netherworld in which he’s compelled to move the entire family to an abandoned farmhouse in North Dakota. While the logic that holds these plot points together remains elusive throughout Oxide and Danny Pang’s movie, this much is clear: Jess must pay for her error.
She bears her sense of guilt and despair as well as any movie adolescent might: driving up to the gloomy farmhouse, she clicks through her cell phone photos, remembering the smiling friends she left behind while anticipating boredom, isolation, and more glum resentment from her conveniently immature and self-righteous parents. Denise (Penelope Ann Miller) tends to gaze on her sternly, ensuring the girl feels her distrust and rage quite palpably, while Roy (Dylan McDermott) makes noises about how hard it will be to make a go of the sunflower growing business, as he tries to follow in his own father’s footsteps. (Whatever Roy did back in Chicago is unspoken, though he’s able to start tractors and heave sacks of seed like he was born to it.)
The house, full of shadows and a favorite perching place for local crows, is especially unwelcoming to the citified family, save for the baby brother Ben (Evan and Theodore Turner), mute since the car accident and so, another walking accusation against Jess. He’s able to “see” the ghosts who hang around so miserably, their faces grey and pained, their movements scuttling in the usual J-horror way. (The Pang brothers made Gin gwai [The Eye], among other films, demonstrating their affinity for skritchy digital effects and moody hauntings.)
Though little Benny won’t speak about what he sees, he does provide plenty of sweet-faced-yet-ooky reaction shots, such that his sister is suitably spooked. The very first night she and the boy are left alone in the house, of course, the place erupts — furniture flying, walls groaning, long pale arms grabbing, and dead people screaming — only when the cops respond to her 911 call and her parents return, the house is set right. As the adults look on, imagining that Jess is seeking attention or otherwise acting out, you see the house though a swift wide-angle zoom-out that essentially says, “It’s all in Jess’ head, only it’s not.” That is, it’s only a matter of time before the adults pay for not attending to the children’s special insights.
Jess’ anxious relationship to the Terrible Place is exacerbated by the arrival of John (John Corbett), shotgun in hand. Roy takes this as a good omen, as John shoots off a couple of rounds in order to frighten away the crows swarming and pecking at Roy, supposedly in pursuit of his truckload of sunflower seeds. John has long hair and a manly man’s mien, and conveniently needs a job and a place to stay, and so he sets to planting seeds and drinking lemonade, joined with Roy in sweaty outdoors labor and more willing than the other adults to hear Jess out when she describes the creepy goings-on. “I know,” he mumbles sagely, “That people sometimes, especially parents, don’t know how to listen.”
As unhelpful as this observation sounds, it does serve to underline Jess’ isolation. She’s briefly (and predictably) supported by a nice and mostly ineffective boy named Bobby (Dustin Milligan), who shows up at film’s end with teeny little hatchet in hand, entirely willing to battle monsters for the new girl who’s impressed him with her basketball skills, but for all practical purposes, Jess is on her own. (Bobby does voice what seems the film’s sole sane note, when he assures her, “Everyone makes mistakes,” a welcome if meager attempt to absolve her of the burden everyone else has heaped on her.) As a metaphor for Jess’ teen girl angst, the daunting house set-up is standard (slasher movies have worn out this ground already, as have many Japanese horror films). That it’s specifically an “all-American” sort of structure, complete with trees without leaves and a cadaverous banker played by The X-Files‘ Cancer Man (William B. Davis) only underlines the movie’s been-there aspect.
Equally retread, Roy asserts his desire to “keep this family together,” blaming his daughter for his damaged “dream” (20 years of savings spent on hospital bills, hinting at a critique of the health care system this movie won’t actually mount). He apparently intends to do so without consulting with said family about the means or costs, drawing brief fire from his distraught and insular wife, but only when it’s too late: the house has got them.
And this would be the point. The house offers repeated opportunities for Jess to look afraid, her face half-obscured by shadows, her eye held in oppressive close-up, her willowy figure silhouetted at the top of the cellar stairs. Windows, doorframes, cracks in doors and floors create internal frames that confine her, even as she and Ben peer beyond the camera, seeking to know what’s watching them, what so plainly means to hurt them. “What do you want from me?” she cries out when walking through the especially dark and huge barn, where she discovers a particularly aggressive child-ghost, who comes at her in what seems the film’s 35th jump scene.
Of course, the place doesn’t really want something specific from her, but she and Ben, the children with open minds, are the occasion for its ire. Just so, she must endure abuses and scares befitting her sense of responsibility for her brother’s condition, even as her parents repeatedly leave the kids alone, don’t watch the little boy as carefully as they might (he wanders off in pursuit of ghosts a few times), or make themselves emotionally absent. But if The Messengers means to say something about all this familial and social dysfunction, that point is lost among hackneyed, decidedly unscary gyrations.