“The Postman”(1997), LOOSELY based on a 1985 novel by David Brin, is the second in my series of 90’s post-apoc films starring Kevin Costner, and enjoys an even lower score than its 2-year older brother: a dismal 10% on rotten tomatoes as of the writing of this review. Costner takes the reins as director this time, likely in response to having had to take over the direction of “Waterworld” after Kevin Reynolds threw in the towel and walked off the set. James Newton Howard returns from “Waterworld” as well with another sweeping musical score that might be one of the best aspects of both films. While I don’t feel that such a low score is warranted, I do admit that “The Postman” doesn’t deliver as buoyantly as “Waterworld”, in part because it is less of a popcorn action film and more of a sincere attempt to paint a realistic portrait of post apocalyptic civilization in the Pacific Northwest. While I appreciate that, most people don’t, and almost nobody wants to sit through three straight hours of what should probably have been a T.V. mini-series, ala “Jericho”.
While “Waterworld” took place on the rusted bones of the old world, long after the memories of the previous society had faded, “The Postman” takes place in 2013, a mere fifteen years after the apocalypse. I gathered this because the letter Costner reads from the bag of mail he discovers in the abandoned truck is said to have been written fifteen years ago. This means that the mail truck delivering that letter was still running fifteen years ago, yet somehow crashed and was never recovered. This leads me to believe that law enforcement agencies were disbanded either during or shortly after the mail truck wrecked. That would place the film’s apocalypse in approximately 1998. (Whew! We dodged another one, guys!) This is congruent with the fact that both Costner’s and Will Patton’s characters purport to have been of working age before the apocalypse, and Patton claims to have been present at one of the battles in the apocalyptic war. Since much of the old civilization is not only still above sea level, but actually still functioning, the movie occupies the same niche as “Jericho” in that it walks a line between post-apocalyptic and neo-western small town drama – the difference being that “Jericho” did it seamlessly.
One thing that really stands out about both of the Costner post-apoc epics is that both feature exceptional opening sequences. “The Postman” opens with non-diegetic radio broadcasts describing the fall of civilization – They describe trouble with a hate group called the Holnists, led by a motivational speaker named Nathan Holn. The broadcasts, we can assume, are playing in Costner’s character’s memory – a concept that is used repeatedly in the first few minutes, and successfully, in my opinion. Costner, trading in his skin tight leather and ski boots for more traditionally post-apocalyptic scavenged wardrobe including sun shades, an M1 Carbine on his back, and a pack mule, looks out over the great salt flats…which don’t look much different after the apocalypse. In fact, the difference is that someone has dumped a bunch of junk everywhere. The desolation of the salt flats, though in contrast with the lushness of the rest of the film’s landscape, is a perfect complement to Costner’s lone-nomad character and appearance, and makes for some epic opening shots. For one, Costner jumps up and down on a diving board, drawing attention to the fact that there is no water as far as the eye can see, and then stands next to a Coppertone billboard drawing attention to the baking sun and arid landscape.
As he crosses the wastes, we hear more non-diegetic sounds, again from his memory, of explosions and war. We can assume that what we see is a result of a war that involved the aforementioned Holnists, and thus, we can already establish them as the antagonists before we’ve even met them. In a move I’m never too fond of, but which was used in “Waterworld” as well, a narrator speaks up, introduces herself as the lone-nomad’s daughter and talks about endless winters, poisoned oceans, and resulting plagues. So, we can now assume that the Holnists’ war involved some kind of nuclear holocaust as well, and that the few who survived suffered plagues (the “bad” mumps… as opposed to the good ones).
In one of the best shots in the film, we see a lion standing alone in the wasteland pawing at a rusty tin can. Even the greatest predator is alone and starving without prey. Fortunately, he doesn’t see Costner and his mule walking by, or this would’ve been an artistic short film pointing out our true place on the food chain. Fin?
It starts to rain, and the lion turns his face into it, echoing the claim by the narrator that the rains are finally returning. So, perhaps what we’re seeing is the end of the worst days, but it’s still a jarring transition when Costner walks right out of the desert and into a Thomas Moran painting.
If there’s one thing I love about this genre, it’s when a writer and/or director can display their post-apoc savvy. The next scene at the gas station is, I believe, solely intended for this purpose. Costner and his mule, now introduced as Bill, come upon an abandoned gas station and decide to scavenge for supplies. Bill tries to drink from a trough, but Costner stops him long enough to perform some kind of chemical test on the stagnant water. For the longest time, I couldn’t decide if he was testing for radiation from the nuclear fallout or biological contamination from the stagnation, but someone on a message board told me it was a PH testing kit. Why would the PH matter? I have no idea. More importantly, why ISN’T he worried about radiation or bacteria?
Costner rings the service bell and we are again privy to his memory as he sees a reflection of the old world in a nearby mirror. He walks inside and sets up a TV, and begins fantasizing about watching it, hearing the sounds of old television shows in his mind. I find this effect brilliant, and it’s unfortunate that after having seen it used to great effect so many times in the opening sequence, nothing else like it is seen again anywhere in the film.
Another shining aspect of the opening is when he cracks open the cigarette vending machine and, upon seeing his bounty, exclaims “I’m rich!” Since Dennis Hopper isn’t around with his mysteriously abundant supply of smokes, they are realistically rare and valuable in narrative. But, like the glimpses of Costner’s pre-apoc memories, they never appear again, and are never so much as mentioned for the rest of the movie. In fact, if they’d ended the movie right here, it would probably have a 90% rating.
Costner comes upon a small settlement and decides to perform Shakespeare in exchange for a meal. If this had happened even half an hour later in the film I could more easily forgive it, but it wasn’t TWO MINUTES AGO that he stumbled on his carcinogenic fortune! Why wouldn’t he just barter a handful of Marlboros for a hot meal and save himself the embarrassment of his humiliating display? Truly, the Shakespeare scene comes off as pure silliness, and right after such an epic opening. What’s more, if he’d have avoided putting on the play, he’d already have eaten and left town long before the Holnists show up and set a three-hour debacle in motion!
Props once again to whoever designed the costumes in this movie. Everyone in the settlement is clothed in heavily patched and repaired scraps of mismatched clothing, accented with a large number of handmade and knitted pieces. All their cozy layers aren’t enough to cover up their terrible acting, though (I’m looking at you, townsperson Larry. What exactly is your purpose in this film?), and just like in “Waterworld”, the solid performances of the central characters are barely enough to make up for the supporting cast.
Speaking of solid performances, the best part of this movie is also the villain. General Bethlehem (Will Patton) rides into town at the head of a column of Holnists, and they look fucking scaaaaary. The Holnists have come for supplies, taxes, and conscripts, though they won’t accept anyone of ethnic blood, claiming that they are impure. They don’t necessarily kill or maim them – they just don’t kidnap them and force them into military slavery. So, in essence, they’re almost nicer to those that they claim to hate. Costner tries to slip out while they loot the hapless villagers, but is caught and knocked out with a stick… because he is an example of pure blood! This flavor of racism is confusing.
He is taken back to the Holnist HQ, which is in a partially flooded rock quarry. The only thing more confusing than the Holnists’ racism is their habitation. If you spend all day looting lush, green farming villages with log cabins and nearby rivers, how shitty would it be to have to come home to a big hole in the ground? Wouldn’t you just want to occupy one of these villages? The smokers lived in a rusted out oil tanker, for God’s sake, and even THEY didn’t have to kidnap new recruits! Also, for apparently having taken on the US government, and presumably the US army and police, the entirety of the Holnist army isn’t very impressive.
Bethlehem looks over the day’s catch, and asks the first man what he did before the war. His answer is golden: “I had a shovel. I digged holes.” Bethlehem answers, “Well, now you will fill them.” Is that a threat? Is he referring to filling a grave, or is it supposed to be some kind of motivational comment – “well, fillin’ holes is better’n diggin’ em, I guess.” Bethlehem moves on to Costner, who states that he was once a Shakespearean actor, leading Bethlehem to quote, “Cry Havoc! And let slip the dogs of war!” They quote Shakespeare back and forth in what I find is a very misunderstood scene. They’re not just randomly quoting Shakespeare, but rather, each quote is a double entendre with Bethlehem trying to convince Costner to join the Holnists, and Costner expressing his hesitation. Because of this exchange, Bethlehem sees Costner as too clever and individualistic and decides to knock him out a second time, since this obviously cures dissent and is a convenient device to progress the story temporally.
The next morning, Idaho, Bethlehem’s 3rd in command, leads the men in their training which involves running twenty miles with full packs, and mentions that the men haven’t eaten for three days. Now, there are certain sciences that can be skewed for artistic license and still allow me to suspend my disbelief. Physics and human biology are not among them. Jesus, 20 miles!? That’s almost a marathon! With full packs!? After not eating for three days!? There’s no human being alive that could do that, let alone every man they just kidnapped, all of whom are probably malnourished anyway, and none of whom are likely Olympic-level athletes. Why not a believable distance, like 5 miles? With full packs, and after 3 days without food, that alone would have been an adequate herculean effort.
Giovanni Ribisi, appearing in a role he would reprise 2 years later in “The Other Sister,” comes in from the run last, and is denied his dinner in an attempt, I assume, to weed out the weak. The others are served up a big bowl of what looks like used toothpaste or paper pulp, but actually turns out to be Bill. Yes, that Bill – Costner’s mule that we just spent ten minutes learning to care about. Get used to that. With this in mind, Costner gives his dinner to Ribisi (who is credited as “Bandit 20”, despite his significant role in this portion of the story).
In another moment of incongruent silliness, the Holnists sit down to watch a movie on a working projector, but nearly riot when the projectionist plays “Universal Soldier”. He pacifies them by putting on “The Sound of Music”. Though the Holnists are chucking large rocks at the projectionist booth with apparent ease, you can see in one shot that the booth is actually about 200 yards from where they’re sitting. So these guys can chuck stones the length of two football fields? They really are the super-race! It must be from running twenty miles with packs every day.
Because he’s apparently running out of excuses to kill people, Bethlehem organizes a game of musical chairs and kills the loser. He recites the “Rules of 8”, which are somewhat like the Cobra Kai creedo with some rules-of-fight-club thrown in. Much like the quality of this film, Ribisi’s retardation seems consistently present, but varies in degree. Costner attempts to recruit Ribisi and a large black man named “Woody” (who snuck into the army by virtue of his light skin) to escape, but neither seem interested.
Ribisi tattles, leading Idaho to choose Costner for a two-part suicide mission: Go into the woods armed only with a knife, retrieve the scout (or his remains), and kill and bring back the lion (who finally found some prey!). His reward for successful completion: a lion steak. Instead, Costner intentionally falls through a rope bridge spanning a river and makes his escape. By the way, he falls like a hundred feet into this river, and for a guy who seems to have a penchant for getting knocked unconscious, he takes it pretty well.
Now facing the death of a scout, and the loss of his worst troublemaker, Bethlehem makes the most logical decision he can: order Woody and Idaho to ALSO jump from the precariously high bridge into the river, a potentially fatal fall, and swim after Costner through the rapids. Why risk two more men, including an officer, just for Costner? Why not let him go, and just claim later that a scout found and killed him? NO! Bethlehem’s ego is at stake!!!
Ribisi, his teeth looking disgusting despite the bowl of toothpaste he ate earlier, manages to find Costner first (and he didn’t even have to jump off any bridges), but before he can call out to anyone, Costner does what he should’ve done a long time ago and sticks a knife Ribisi’s gut. Next up are Woody and Idaho. Woody, with the coordination of a sack of oranges, pulls a knife on Costner and lunges forward clumsily with both hands simultaneously like a cheap action figure, even though only one hand is holding a knife. Apparently he can’t control them independently. Woody has a sudden change of heart, and reveals that though he can’t knife fight worth a crap, he can THROW a knife perfectly, and does so, sticking his knife in Idaho’s arm giving Costner a chance to escape. Idaho shoots and kills Woody, ending yet another potentially interesting character, and pursues Costner into the woods until he gets attacked and killed by the infamous lion. I told you not to get attached to anyone in this movie (including the lion – you never see him again).
The following scene is Scavenging 101. Costner, caught in the freezing rain, stumbles upon a postal truck and crawls inside seeking shelter. Inside, he finds a plastic skeleton in a bomber jacket, and he steals it to keep warm. He also finds a zippo lighter and starts burning mail to keep warm. Hmmm… it seems like the fuel in my Zippos always ran out in about a week, but apparently this one is still going strong after sitting for fifteen years. Also, does mail just not produce smoke when it burns? I mean, he’s got a fire burning in an enclosed truck. Furthermore, it appears that Costner is eating something while reading the mail by firelight. What the hell is he eating? I hope not something that he found in the fifteen year old mail…
The next morning, newly uniformed, he takes the bag of mail to the nearby town of Pineview, but they’re all being complete jerks and not only refuse him entrance, but threaten to kill him. He constructs an unnecessarily large and complex lie, telling them he’s a postal carrier from the reformed government.
When pressed by the townspeople for information, he claims Richard Starkey is president (the real name of Ringo Starr). The local musicians in the background obviously recognize this because they laugh when he says it…but they don’t think to ask if it’s THE Ringo, or question the fact that he’s still alive and now president.
The town throws a dance in Costner’s honor, complete with about a hundred strings of Christmas lights and a number of large halogen lights. How are they powering these lights, anyway? If they’re using generators, where are they getting the gasoline? A beautiful brunette named Abby (Olivia Williams) approaches Costner and straight up asks him to knock her up. He freaks out a bit, and decides to skip town…because this is the obvious male reaction *cough*. On his way out he finds the local post office, and he seems to realize that his own destiny is coming together. This scene very effectively conveys that he truly realizes that he is destined for greater things. There appears to be a windmill behind the post office – are we to assume this is where the town is getting all the electricity they’re frivolously wasting?
He meets a young man named Ford Lincoln Mercury (Larenz Tate) who needs a destiny as well, and decides to jump onboard Costner’s. Costner half-assedly swears him in with the postal carrier motto, and decides to call it a night. Abby shows up in Costner’s room, however, and practically rapes him until he passes out.
Costner leaves the next morning and Bethlehem shows up, falls for Abby, and asks her husband Michael if he can sleep with her. Oddly enough, though Michael just outsourced his wife the night before, he refuses Bethlehem, knowing that it means his life. Bethlehem indeed kills Michael on the spot and kidnaps Abby anyway. Great plan there, Mike. Ironically, Bethlehem calls Pineview a “mud hole.”
The Pineview sheriff tells Bethlehem that Costner is heading east, when he is actually heading west, but somehow, they both end up in a town called Benning (the Holnists circumnavigated the globe…with packs on, after not eating for three days). The Holnists gear up to attack Benning, and the villagers send Costner out to negotiate a peace treaty. Believe it or not, Bethlehem does not recognize Costner! Why not? Because he shaved his beard off! Seriously!? Even after Costner caused him so much trouble? It hasn’t even been that long! I could understand if it had been a year, but how long has it been since they literally stood face to face and quoted Shakespeare to each other – a week?!
Even though he doesn’t recognize him, Bethlehem decides to kill Costner anyway (no surprise there), and instructs the pimp from “12 Monkeys” to shoot him in the face. Fortunately for the pimp, Costner is not a crazy dentist… but unfortunately for him, Abby is a crack shot with the Armalite rifle she steals off of her guard, whom she knocked out with a stick. Abby takes out a number of Holnists, aiming and picking her shots one shot at a time. She shoots some barrels that Bethlehem is hiding behind, and much to my dismay, the barrels don’t explode! That might be a first in action cinema history.
By the way, where did the Holnists get the machine gun and artillery cannons that they’re using to attack Benning? Did they haul those things with their horses? I didn’t see the Holnists arrive with them. Abby runs out of ammo, BUT SHE DOESN’T DROP THE RIFLE! She actually hangs onto the empty gun. Abby, I tip my cap to you.
Costner and Abby escape to the woods on horseback, but Costner is injured. A Holnist tracks them, but Abby kills him and loots his body for ammo and a straight razor, likely to surgically remove the bullet from Costner’s gut, but this is never shown. Suddenly and inexplicably, there is snow falling and it is literally piled in drifts all around. Instant winter? It seriously looks like there’s been a blizzard raging for hours! They find an abandoned cabin and start a fire, apparently not worried that the Holnists might see the smoke.
After awhile, they run out of food, so Abby, without hesitation, shoots their horse and stews it up. Spring comes, and Abby burns down their cabin. Why? Because she’s hardcore. I think she did it to force Costner to move on, as he was pretty attached to the cabin, but I don’t really think that’s her decision to make, is it? I mean, if he wanted to stay there, let him – she can leave any time she wants. Costner is whipped, though, and tags along with minimal whining. Also, though she’s probably three months pregnant at this point, she’s not showing in the slightest.
Costner and Abby take to the road and meet up with a letter carrier who takes them to the headquarters of the newly formed postal service. Ford has set himself up as the Postmaster, and has quite a little army of mailmen built up! Way to go, Ford! Abby was apparently in such a hurry to go SOMEWHERE that she was willing to burn down a perfectly good cabin, but she apparently doesn’t mind shacking up here at the post office indefinitely. One of the kids recognizes Costner as the legendary postman…even though he’s only seen him once before, three months ago. Bethlehem, take notes.
Costner begins delivering the mail with his new army of children. In one scene, he rides past a child holding up a letter (his real life son), and while he could turn his horse around and ride up slowly, he instead chooses to gallop at FULL SPEED toward the little kid and snatch the latter out of his tiny hand while coming dangerously close to trampling him. Though completely contrasting in character, the mariner and the postman can find common ground in their fondness for endangering children.
Costner and Abby eventually return to Pineview, which has apparently discovered COLORED Christmas lights since they were last there, and strung up even more than before…oh, and the band has hired fiddle and flute players from the large talent pool in their town of under two hundred people. They also have suspiciously good acoustics, considering their lack of sound equipment.
The Holnists start killing postal carriers on their routes, so Santa Clause the ex-military aerospace engineer helps the mailmen plan an ambush in retaliation. In an earlier scene in the film, it’s mentioned that the entire town of Benning only has twenty rounds of ammo between them, yet Costner somehow scrapes together enough firearms to fill all the tiny hands in his child army, and enough ammo that they literally all unload their magazines in unison to take out just a small band of Holnists.
Obviously, the Holnists get revenge by killing ten innocent people from Pineview, including the parents of some of the carriers. Costner decides that the price is too high, and pens a letter of surrender to Bethlehem. Does he deliver it himself? Why would he do that when there’s a perfectly good young person he can put in harm’s way? So, he gives the letter to Ford to deliver instead, and sure enough, Bethlehem rejects his surrender and then sticks Ford in front of a firing squad. *sigh*
In a sincerely touching scene, Ford finds himself on the executioner’s pole next to a postal carrier from California that’s he’s never met. Both he and Bethlehem are shocked that the postal service has managed to spread like “Fight Club”, and Bethlehem, who also prefers to let others deliver his messages, sends Ford back to Costner to, I guess, tell him that he…still wants to kill him? Just in case he forgot?
Costner and Abby, the refugee mystery man and the American girl, still runnin’ down a dream of freedom, end up at a town run by Tom Petty (as himself). The Holnists arrive, but again don’t recognize Costner’s face in the crowd. Tom won’t back down and tells them “Don’t come around here no more”. They must have been fans, because they don’t break down the door and sack the town. You got lucky, Tom. (I spy another conspicuously fat guy here who shouldn’t exist, under the circumstances.) Tom has a zip line built that leads downhill to the next town, and suggests that Costner skedaddle on down and recruit another army of rebels to face Bethlehem. Abby has a change of heart and admits to Costner that she is a woman in love, and they share a heartfelt goodbye. Mayor Petty and Costner climb to the top of the zip line tower and Costner loses his balance, but Tom catches him and saves him from free fallin’. Though Costner is restless, Petty claims the zip line will get him there faster than any other mode of travel, save maybe for learning to fly.
Costner zips into the great wide open toward the town, but we see three of his child soldiers riding alongside him on the road below and keeping up just fine. So…maybe the zip line isn’t so fast afterall? There’s a quick montage where the postman raises an army, and they meet the Holnist army in a big open field, even though the field is flanked by cliffs where they easily could’ve ambushed the Holnists.
So, now this cobbled army of peasants is going to do what the US army couldn’t do, and take on the Holnists? In a moment of clarity, Costner realizes the outlandishness of this prospect, and decides to invoke one of the Rules of 8 and challenge Bethlehem mano-a-mano for leadership of the clan. In a really good scene, Bethlehem tries to deny Costner the right to challenge, but Costner tears off his sleeve and rides along Holnist front line showing them the number 8 burned into his arm from when he was a recruit. Bethlehem knows, now, that he must allow Costner to challenge or risk undermining his own rules – the concepts upon which his own reputation and power depend.
I also really like the fight. Instead of standing toe to toe and flinging choreographed punches and kicks at each other to bad 90s techno, the two men slam into each other like bears and wrestle in the dirt, clumsily but viciously. In fact, Bethlehem ends up with blood on his head that I’m pretty sure is genuine. Costner eventually takes mount and ground-and-pounds Bethlehem into submission. He stands and begins decreeing peace, equality, and an end to killing, but Bethlehem must not have heard him, because he snatches a six shooter from Ford and decides to snatch back the victory by K.O. via .38 special. Before Bethlehem can pull the trigger, his own second in command shoots him in the back, and the whole match gets thrown out on a D.Q. for interference. Still, the Holnists lay down their rifles and accept peace. Costner returns to Petty’s town and meets his lovechild “Hope”, the narrator of the opening sequence, and he and Abby presumably live happily ever after.
Jump to 2043 where we see an amazingly re-modernized group of people in modern clothing. There are three television cameras watching Hope give a speech dedicating a bronze statue to her late father. The statue depicts Costner almost trampling the little boy with the letter, but I’m not sure how anyone knows that even happened since no one was around to see it…unless that little boy grew up and became a sculptor. So, in 30 years, they’ve gone from a post apocalyptic wild west to factory clothing and television cameras? Bullshit.
While this movie obviously has enough wrong with it that I can spend well over four thousand words point it out, it’s also a very sincere and charming movie, and features some outstanding characters and performances. Costner, again as the nameless hero, trades in his badass card for a pansy stamp, but his character shows believable growth and change throughout the film to reflect the events that occur. While not a great performance, I still think it fits. Will Patton is amazing as yet another quotable antagonist that is not only illogical and unsympathetic, but just plain evil…and yet we can’t help but love to hate him. Olivia Williams is a competent, capable female lead, and more importantly, I BELIEVE her. Whether she’s firing an AR or charming Costner out of his semen, she looks as though it’s second nature, and THAT is the mark of a good performance. Lastly, Larenz Tate is nothing if not lovable as Ford Lincoln Mercury, and delivers his lines with legitimate emotion. I truly believe that, if a sequel were made, it should pick up after the battle and follow Ford on his adventures. I think it would even make a great book or TV series. DO YOU HEAR ME, DR. BRIN?!?
Both “Waterworld” and “The Postman” follow basically the same formula: Great opening sequence > nameless outsider nomad meets girl, and decides to help her and her people against an over-the-top villain (who destroys the protagonist’s mode of transportation) and his hordes of followers who are stealing from them > outsider becomes a reluctant hero and overcomes great odds with the help of friends, defeating the villain and freeing the people. The difference being that in “The Postman” the hero finds a place to belong, and in “Waterworld”, he inexplicably rejects it. “The Postman”, however, runs a bit too long and includes a lot of the neo-western elements that don’t seem to fit in the overall narrative, and don’t add anything to the characters or their relationships that hasn’t been or can’t be established in the rest of the film. For this reason, I’m giving it a score one point lower than “Waterworld”, but I still recommend it.