Film: The Big Picture: Try as you may, postmen are hardly thriller material
Friday 10 April 1998
Postal workers are part of a rapidly diminishing species. Along with estate agents, cabbies and smokers, they are one of the few groups against whom it remains socially acceptable to be prejudiced.
A film like the Norwegian black comedy Junk Mail isn't likely to find favour with the campaign for the promotion of postmen, if such a thing exists. It only perpetuates the notion that the people who deliver our mail are zombies with no ethics, even less charisma, and an idea of good fashion sense that extends to allowing just one inch of white towelling sock to show between hem and Hush Puppy.
The Oslo postal service could well be able to sue for the way it is represented in Junk Mail. Its employees are portrayed as scraggly layabouts indistinguishable from the local tramps and louts; they sport slicks of greasy hair and the dead, sleepless eyes of smack addicts. A senior manager with folds of skin bulging over his collar has a crunchy cough that threatens to dislodge a lung. Such an occurrence wouldn't be out of place here: this is a film where a man finally gets to hold the woman of his dreams, only for her to vomit all over his jacket.
But then she has just overdosed and nearly drowned in her bath, and he has rushed to revive her. She is Line (pronounced Lena), a deaf dry-cleaner. The hearing-impaired are a gift to suspense, as Hitchcock demonstrated in Marnie, but in Junk Mail you're more likely to find Line using her disability against others - pretending that her hearing-aid has packed up when someone is saying something she doesn't care to hear, or lip-reading strangers' conversations, a habit she likens to reading other people's mail.
That's something that her unlikely saviour, Roy, knows all about. He's a postman who makes no attempt to disguise his practice of rifling through private correspondences. Once he has read the letters, he just delivers them, tatty and stained, to the rightful owners. He also disposes of the stacks of circulars and junk mail that he can't be bothered to stuff through letterboxes, which very nearly redeems him in my book. Watching this dog-end of a man bringing disgrace onto his profession, I had a glimpse of how much fun The Postman might have been if this chap had been the hero rather than Kevin Costner.
Roy (Robert Skjaerstad) is only able to save Line (Andrine Saether) because he is creeping through her apartment, having stolen her keys and decided to make himself at home. It is entirely appropriate that he pops a Mogadon while he's there; the whole film has the woozy, rusted quality that you get coming round from sleeping pills. It's shot mostly in jaundiced greens; the images themselves look ravaged by damp. And although the movie is comprised of short, snappy scenes, things seem to happen in slow-motion. Roy is threatened by a pair of muggers who have to lean against each other so they don't fall over; a man who has a window pane broken in his face simply stands there, stunned. A particular highlight is a scene in a sleazy karaoke bar which at last answers the question "what do postmen do at night?"
Some way into Junk Mail, the writers Pal Sletaune (who also directed) and Jonny Halberg decide to shift the picture into thriller mode, a move for which they don't seem fully prepared. They have assembled the correct ingredients - a bag of money, a femme fatale, a case of mistaken identity - but fail to integrate them with any confidence. When Roy starts playing detective, all sorts of unlikely things happen. Vicious criminals reveal their plans in exaggerated stage whispers on crowded trains. A thug who is injured while stalking Roy doesn't return to resume the chase, even though the recovery of a stash of loot depends on his persistence.
This is made more frustrating by the fact that when a suspenseful situation does present itself, Sletaune tackles it with startling economy and expertise - such as the tense struggle between two men separated by the door of a toilet cubicle, which is delightful in its departure from the conventional choreography of movie violence.
Junk Mail overlaps at many points with Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva - both films feature as their hero a naive postman fetishistically obsessed with an unobtainable woman, and both get out of their depth in skullduggery. Sletaune also shares Beineix's tendency towards gratuitous spectacle, though any poetic flourishes in Junk Mail blossom from the most barren ground. It may be that the screenplay specified a railway tunnel as Roy's sanctuary in order to contrive the film's most absurdly delightful effect: a train ploughing into a shopping cart full of post, creating a multi- coloured confetti of letters flurrying in the light at the end of the tunnel.
Somewhere in the last 10 minutes of the film, Sletaune decides that he doesn't want to make a thriller after all, and simply ignores the collection of loose ends that have mounted up. You might be willing to forgive him because of the other things accomplished by his film. Like the use of the Postman Pat theme for menacing effect. Or the trick of making a postman seem, if not exactly likeable, then at least grotesque enough to be interesting.
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