The Cohen Case Files: Messages Deleted (2009)

Written by Larry Cohen

As the direct-to-DVD market proliferated in the ‘90s and into this century, it was only a matter of time before a Larry Cohen script was given the slapdash, bare bones treatment and dropped into the nearest bargain bin (of course, I am ignoring films like Uncle Sam that Cohen had a hand in producing specifically for the DTV market). What makes Messages Deleted an odd case is that, while it was released to the DTV market back in 2010, Cohen was so unhappy with what director Rob Cowan did with his script, he purchased the rights to the film, recut it, and is hoping to secure a theatrical release for his new cut. I love the passion, but even if he had a better film on his hands, Cohen would still be facing an impossible battle with that idea.

I had the opportunity to see Cohen’s cut of Messages Deleted in May when he brought it to the Portage Theater in Chicago. Cohen was on hand to do a Q&A after the film and this review will use some of his insights into what went wrong with the film.

Joel Brandt (Matthew Lillard) is a film professor at an unnamed college in an unnamed town that looks a hell of a lot like Vancouver, British Columbia. Joel had a brief moment where he thought he was going to be a professional screenwriter. He sold a script to a studio at one point, but it never made it into production. Even now, years after his brief glimpse into a possible screenwriting career, he holds out the slimmest of hopes that he can leave behind the drudgery of tearing apart the clichés of his students’ screenplays and make it back into the life he nearly had.

When he receives a frantic message from a complete stranger on his answering machine claiming that if he doesn’t help, he’s going to be murdered, Joel chalks it up as a prank played by his friend Adam (Michael Eklund). It’s not until later, when a man with the same name as the mystery caller is killed right in front of him that Joel realizes the call was real. When he is unable to play the message (see the title) for the detective (Deborah Kara Unger) on the case, he becomes suspicious in the eyes of the law. He becomes even more of a suspect when another similar murder occurs. Of course, the police are not aware that the killings are almost exactly the same as murders described in one of Joel’s old scripts. This is a connection it takes Joel longer to realize than it should. It’s not long after this twist that he finds himself on the run, scrambling to clear his name with the help of a few allies.

That these allies are also prime suspects when it comes to who the actual killer might be is no surprise. Could it be the afore-mentioned Adam? In the best thriller stereotype way, as a best friend, he is sleazy and seems to enjoy pointing out to Adam what a failure he has been in his life because, hey, what are friends for? What about his on/off girlfriend Claire (Chiara Zanni)? Could she be getting back at Joel for his refusal to settle down? And just why is Millie (Gina Holden), the student whom we first meet when Joel is crushing her hackneyed script in front of a class, so keen to help out her professor who is wanted for murder? Does she have a crush on him or could she be the killer?

As always, red-herrings abound and in a good thriller, we would not be sure if any of these characters are innocent until they become victims. Unfortunately, Messages Deleted is not a good thriller. Despite Cohen’s attempt to cut it into something more closely resembling the self-referential thriller deconstruction he had written, the film is still nothing more than a mediocre exercise in genre tropes.

What went wrong? According to Cohen, director Rob Cowan took his script and turned it into a by-the-numbers thriller. I have not seen the Cowan cut of the film, but Cohen’s edit is only marginally better than what he described in the Q&A.

To really get into what doesn’t work with the film, we can begin with the (lack of) production values on display. I mentioned Vancouver earlier and I do not wish to mean this as an insult to that fine Canadian city, but at this point, so many films and television shows are shot there, it has become almost nothing more than a generic backdrop. There is no flavor to the locations used in the film. Everything is bland and formless. There is none of the grit or authenticity of one of Cohen’s shot on a shoestring indies that takes advantage of its locations to build atmosphere.

The lack of budget and dull choice of locations only highlights how flat the film looks. There is nothing cinematic about Cowan’s shooting style. Every shot is strictly utilitarian, resembling an episode of something you would see on the CW network.

Outside of Lillard and Holden, the cast sleepwalks their way through their scenes. Unger, in particular, looks bored out of her mind. But I can’t really blame her for that response. Her character has nothing to do for much of the film and is only used to move the plot forward when Joel needs to get back on the run.

Then there is the script.

I cannot overstate how much respect I have for Larry Cohen as a filmmaker. When he’s working at the top of his game (It’s Alive, God Told Me To), he can cross the line from a good filmmaker into genius territory. But the story idea behind Messages Deleted is dated and just as clichéd as the scripts its protagonist faults his students for writing. Simply commenting on ridiculous thriller stereotypes without doing something to subvert them or twist them in any way does not make the script any cleverer than the ridiculous thrillers it’s trying to deconstruct. Even worse, Cohen shows himself to be slightly out of touch with the modern world by basing his film on the use of an answering machine. Honestly, who uses these things anymore?

At the very least, the film is worth following because of Lillard’s sympathetic performance. Not only is he believably frantic as the classic “wrong man” protagonist, he brings a gently self-deprecating tone to his failed screenwriter. When a producer leaves a message on his answering machine describing himself as being from Hollywood, Lillard’s mocking delivery of the “You are from Hollywood!” line is just as much directed at himself as the producer. As written, Joel’s disappointment in his life is tempered by the understanding that he could have ended up a self-absorbed industry hack using “Hollywood” as a way to impress people trying to break into the industry. Lillard nails that tone of not knowing whether to count himself lucky or cursed in the early scenes and this helps maintain sympathy for his character as he inevitably does dumb things to keep the plot moving forward.

I have no doubt that Messages Deleted could have been a decent film had Cohen directed it. Several of his films have used outlandish and contrived plots as their basis but he nearly always makes something interesting through savvy casting and letting his actors go to unusual places with their performances. The feeling that his films are being improvised as they go along gives them a natural feel that makes it easier to accept the ridiculous plot twists. Without his guiding hand behind the camera during production, no amount of post-production tinkering is able to salvage the footage he has to work with in this case. But I still admire him for trying.

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