January 29, 2010

The Messenger

Grade: A –

Director Oren Moveman

Starring: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, and Samantha Morton

MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

The best war movies don’t always take place on the battlefield.

Film classics such as The Best Years of Our Lives, Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, and Born on the Fourth of July are grounded in the unfortunate truth that the theater of war extends from the frontline to the home front. Even still, the backdrop for The Messenger, writer-director Oren Moverman’s astonishing debut, is especially resonant (and cinematically uncharted). The film follows two soldiers assigned to the Army’s Casualty Notification service, responsible for visiting and informing families of the deaths of their loved ones.

Before even a modicum of character development, this is a profound premise. These ‘messengers’ are themselves soldiers must repeatedly re-suffer their own wounds and demons through experiencing the raw grief of others. In many instances, the mere sight of them standing on a doorstep is enough to provoke grown men into fits of unbridled anguish.

One of the soldiers is Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), a highly decorated, seriously wounded, and psychologically scarred Iraq war vet winding down his remaining months of enlistment. His partner is Cpt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a thrice-divorced recovering alcoholic ramrod who represses his own demons behind a fa├žade of carefully proscribed Army protocols: Never touch the family members; use only clear words like “died” and “killed” in order to avoid the vagaries of euphemisms such as “gone” or “fallen”; etc.

Early scenes in which Montgomery and Stone carry out their sad duty during a series of home visits – and, in one case, inadvertently encounter the parents of a fallen solider in a grocery store – are the film’s heart-wrenching emotional core. Moverman’s deft presentation keeps these honest and moving moments from becoming manipulative or polemical.

During one notification, Montgomery becomes drawn to Olivia (Samantha Morton), a war widow, and their relationship skirts procedural and ethical boundaries. Moverman lingers over this subplot to the point that it becomes a tedious guessing game of “will they are won’t they” (and “should or shouldn’t they”). Ultimately, however, Montgomery and Olivia (and Stone, for that matter) are all lost souls whose pain shares a common origin, each searching for the solace of a kindred spirit.

Besides its affecting subject-matter, the strength of The Messenger is its ensemble cast. Not since The People vs. Larry Flynt has Harrelson been this good, running the emotional gambit to play the tortured, complex Stone. Morton continues to solidify her standing as one of our best, most underrated actresses. But, this film truly belongs to Foster, who previously turned heads with roles in Alpha Dog and 3:10 to Yuma. Here, the young method actor effortlessly disappears into his role, producing the sort of stellar, transcendent performance that defines and catapults careers.

The Messenger makes an interesting companion to The Hurt Locker, the two being the most mature films yet set against the backdrop of the Iraq war. While Hurt Locker is largely defined by its milieu, the message of The Messenger applies just as intensely to any military conflict during any era.

Neil Morris

Originally published at www.indyweek.com

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