There’s a beautiful image I remember from the preview for The Postman. A young boy, standing by the side of a dirt road, holds a letter in the air for Kevin Costner‘s postman to snatch as he gallops by on his horse. It was a dramatic and mythopoeic moment.
But this scene in the context of the film exemplifies everything that’s wrong with The Postman. See, the boy actually misses the postman riding by — by the time he runs into the road, the postman has already overshot the house by hundreds of yards. But the postman stops — he’s seen the boy. The boy holds his letter up. The postman turns his horse around, forces his mount into a run, and races past the boy to grab his letter.
There the scene ends, so we must conjecture what happens next. The postman, who was in a hurry when he passed the house the first time, now must stop his horse again, turn around, and race back in the other direction, past the boy’s house yet again.
Costner, who directed and produced The Postman, knew the power of the image he was creating here — in the final scene of the film, grateful citizens erect a memorial to the postman commemorating that very moment. The fact that the boy and the postman are doing things that make no sense whatsoever doesn’t seem to have crossed Costner’s mind. Why didn’t the little boy — who was excited by the prospect of mailing his letter — run out to meet the postman once he’d stopped? Why didn’t the postman just trot back to meet the boy? Costner doesn’t care — he’s more interested in style over substance.
There’s a good movie buried somewhere in The Postman — no, really. Costner could have trimmed a good hour from this three-hours-plus monster and had a much more robust story. But Dances with Wolves — a brilliant film — went to Costner’s head, and now he’s afraid to tell any tale that isn’t an epic.
If you can look past all the extraneous fat, you’ll find a lovely character story at the heart of The Postman. An unnamed lone traveler (Costner) wanders the wasteland of the post-apocalyptic American West. For unnecessarily complicated reasons, one cold, rainy night he is forced to take shelter in a long-abandoned mail truck. For warmth, he takes the dead letter carrier’s uniform and coat. When his subsequent travels take him to a prosperous-looking town, he invents a fiction of a restored United States and a renewed postal service, delivering the ancient mail from the truck in exchange for food and a bath and a soft bed to sleep in.
The postman, to his own chagrin, ignites hope in the adults who remember their cushy lives before the end of the world, and inspires a local teen (Larenz Tate) to set up a postal service among neighboring towns. This threatens the dominance of a survivalist warlord (Will Patton), who rules the entire area with his army of morons — he vows to destroy the postman. The postman finds his new life further complicated by Abby (Olivia Williams), a local woman who wants him to father her child — her husband has been rendered sterile by one of many plagues that have swept the new world.
Costner is in his element here, playing the aw-shucks ordinary guy caught up in something big that he vehemently wants out of. But Costner the director needs someone to rein him in and tell him enough is enough. I hope he’ll have that next time he’s behind the camera.