February 8, 2007

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The Messengers (PG-13)
There’s nothing funnier than watching Dylan McDermott get pecked by crows in The Messengers, a movie that is also about a haunted sunflower farm.

Watching John Corbett (Chris in the Morning or Carrie’s boyfriend, depending on whether you liked Northern Exposure or Sex and the City more) get pecked by crows was pretty funny too, but not as randomly strange as the attack on McDermott, which comes about a third of the way into the movie and offers audiences one of many laugh-out-loud funny moments.

Roy (McDermott), his wife Denise (Penelope Ann Miller), their sullen teenage daughter Jess (Kristen Stewart) and their clearly-a-surprise toddler Ben (Evan and Theodore Turner) have decided that, after some financial hardship and family turmoil back in Chicago, what they need is a fresh start. And nothing says “fresh start” like dragging your family into rural North Dakota and pinning your economic well-being on a sunflower harvest.

Roy picks as his new homestead a “rustic” farm wherein the buildings appear to be constructed of rot and bitterness. Rot, bitterness and eeeeevil — in the movie’s opening scenes, we get a black-and-white look at the grisly deaths of the previous occupants. When Roy and the clan get there — apparently a half a dozen years later — there are no blood splatters or severed heads lying around but there are plenty of strange personal effects hidden in the corners, odd noises coming from the second floor and/or the basement, and crows. Lots and lots of crows. They shriek out their KAWs for maximum fright but, soon, Roy and family notice that there are more and more crows around. And, when Roy comes home with an SUV full of sunflower seeds, the crows see their opportunity to swoop down and peck him about the head and shoulders, causing him to furiously flap out and make noises like “Aaaaghk!” It’s a great cinematic moment and one that caused me to make a little snorty noise from trying to hold back my laughter.

Brilliant on its own, the scene gets even funnier when shots pierce the air and a long-haired drifter appears, shotgun in one hand, hobo-pack on his back. Burwell (Corbett) looks exactly like a “Wanted” poster and, as I mentioned before, is just wandering around carrying a shotgun but nonetheless Roy is so grateful for Burwell’s saving him from death-by-crow that he hires him on for the season and gives him a bed within hacking-distance of his family.

Actually, Roy’s made all sorts of brilliant decisions, including not selling when a banker appears — seemingly out of thin air — to offer him 15 percent more than he paid for the land. That’s 15 percent cash money more than Roy paid for his sunflower farm — sunflowers being a crop at the mercy of the weather and of crows and not the field of money trees that Roy seems to think they are. (The banker, by the way, is played with foreshadowy brilliance by William B. Davis, best known — and loved — for his role as Cigarette Smoking Man on The X-Files. Davis could make a career of this kind of work. Nothing says “impending doom” better than the sudden materialization of William B. Davis in a navy suit.)

About two thirds of the way through the movie, the crows that attacked Roy return — with their friends and family — and blitzkrieg the disheveled head of Burwell, with hilarious results that could win the Bizarro World Oscar for Best Actor. In between these two glorious moments of avian aggression, the movie technically focuses on Jess and her attempts to convince her parents that there house is chock full of spookiness, much of which seems bent on terrorizing her. (Her parents are convinced that her ghostly tales are an attempt to sabotage their brilliant sunflower-based plans.) But, frankly, the whiney “why won’t you listen to me”s of a teenage girl are nothing compared to militant crows.

I’m sure The Messengers thought it was a creepy, spine-chilling horror movie and not an uproarious comedy starring a group of scheming crows, but I say forget what you wanted to be, The Messengers, and embrace what you are. For, while the horror is weak and forgettable, the crows and their head-pecking are now burned into my memory. C-

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, disturbing violence and terror. Directed by Oxide Pang Chun and Danny Pang and written by Mark Wheaton and Todd Farmer, The Messengers is an hour and 24 minutes long and is distributed by Sony Pictures in wide release.