'Kill the Messenger': What the Critics Are Saying

Michael Cuesta's drama casts Jeremy Renner as investigative journalist Gary Webb, who uncovers the CIA's involvement in a cocaine conspiracy

Kill the Messenger, out Friday, asks Jeremy Renner to portray Gary Webb, the San Jose Mercury News Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative journalist as he undergoes a controversial investigation into a CIA conspiracy in Nicaragua that led to America's cocaine epidemic.

Also starring Michael Kenneth Williams, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Andy Garcia, Tim Blake Nelson, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen, Robert Patrick, Paz Vega, Rosemarie DeWitt and Ray Liotta, the cautionary tale marks Michael Cuesta's first big-screen feature since his major television success with Homeland. The Focus Features title opens in 374 theaters in select markets.

Watch more 'Kill the Messenger': Jeremy Renner Deconstructs Journalist Gary Webb's Legacy

Read what top critics are saying about Kill the Messenger:

The Hollywood Reporter's chief film critic Todd McCarthy notes its shortcomings: its feeling "like a mid-level gritty downer of a 1970s movie, even though it's set in the mid-1990s," "ultra-cliched warnings" from government officials and "the hand-held camera is used in typical in-your-face fashion to ramp up 'intensity.'" Plus, "one problem with the script by Peter Landesman is that it never clarifies whether the complaints were just nitpicking or if Webb's reporting actually did contain some serious problems. ... Ultimately, it's unclear what the moral of this story is.

"Whatever the answers, Renner brings the man alive in all his pertinent aspects. Looking scruffy and game, Renner's Gary Webb is the kind of journalist every paper needs (or needed) to have: a scrappy, disheveled, pen-and-notebook common-man type unafraid of sticking it to the big boys when they misbehave. Much as he loves his family, he has an instinctive bulldog grip that won't permit him to let go until his prey is subdued. Renner appears completely immersed in his role and when the clouds of doubt accumulate and the man becomes a professional pariah, it's a painful thing to see."

The New York Times' Manohla Dargis says that the film's look "at times evokes Homeland, but the movie’s cinematography isn’t as frenetic and self-consciously raw, and there’s less bobbing and weaving. Even so, the visual choices in the movie, including all the close-ups of Gary’s face as it lightens and darkens, help create the sense that something deeply personal is at stake. Cuesta does his best work in the early scenes of Gary’s sleuthing, which develop a nice, agitated pulse. And because Gary’s dawning awareness of the story’s magnitude mirrors your experience as a moviegoer (you figure it out together), and because Cuesta keeps you close at Gary’s side, you feel invested in his fate. But the film falters as the story swells and churns. ... [Gary] enters a downward spiral as so, too, does the film."

Watch more 'Kill the Messenger' Trailer: Jeremy Renner Stars as Journalist Gary Webb in the Thriller

The New Yorker's David Denby writes that Cuesta "creates a steady flow of tension, and the great cinematographer Sean Bobbitt prowls after Renner as he goes down streets and corridors, or lurks close by, as if spying on him. Yet the filmmaking panache and the movie’s occasional emotional punch may be beside the point: a story this complex, with many contradictory assertions, cannot be adequately conveyed by cinematic technique alone. You can’t take it all in. What you can take in is that Landesman and Cuesta rely on the usual genre scenes." Still, "Renner is the main reason to see Kill the Messenger. ... He makes Webb a hot-tempered, slam-bang guy, bright, impatient, explosive and wounding."

Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan says, "This pulpy, energetic film is a fast-moving and entertaining tale. It simultaneously applauds the nerve needed to take on the establishment and warns against the fierce vengeance those in power will take if you embarrass them and tread on their toes. Messenger is strongest when it deals with Webb's passion for the truth and his unstoppable quest to get the story and less compelling when it takes time out to demonstrate how all this affected his wife and children. From beginning to end, however, the film is the beneficiary of a confident, convincing performance by Renner. He inhabits the character completely, digging into the role with the same won't-let-go fierceness Webb himself displayed when newsworthy information came his way."

The Washington Post's Michael O'Sullivan notes it as a "slightly overheated drama [that] begins and ends with innuendo. In between is a generous schmear of insinuation. ... Despite the film’s heavy-handed effort at vindication, Renner manages to deliver a performance that is complex and satisfyingly contradictory." Also, "the film presents Webb as an old-fashioned shoe-leather reporter with some questionable methods. (The unglamorous nature of investigative journalism is rendered, at times, with a laughable visual shorthand, juxtaposing close-up shots of computer keystrokes with images of string and pushpins on maps, making Webb look like a cross between a typist and a serial killer.)"

Email: Ashley.Lee@THR.com
Twitter: @cashleelee