Director: Oren Moverman
Starring: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, Yaya DaCosta, Steve Buscemi
Running Time: 113 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
The Messenger presents itself as a film exploring the war in Iraq without a political agenda and from a completely objective viewpoint. It even takes a similar character-driven approach as The Hurt Locker in choosing to narrow its focus. Whereas The Hurt Locker followed a bomb diffusion unit into the line of duty, this film trails two men assigned to the Army's Casualty Notification service at home, given the thankless task of alerting soldiers' families of their deaths. It's obvious this scenario greatly increases the chance for emotional button pushing and there's no mistaking that The Messenger very clearly has an agenda, no matter how well hidden (and it's pretty well hidden).
Can an impartial film ever be released on this topic? Doesn't just deciding to bring a project like this to the screen imply that that some kind of stance has already been taken? Possibly, but this one did as good a job as possible in making me not think about that because I was so absorbed in each of the notification scenarios, as difficult as they were to sit through. These scenes of family members reacting (each so differently) to the news and witnessing the circumstances surrounding them is compulsively watchable in a fascinating, yet disturbing way. It's at least an aspect of the war we haven't seen depicted yet and had the entire film focused just on those it would have been perfect, but unfortunately the script loses its way a little in the third act by trying to pile too much on. Still, thanks to mostly good writing and two excellent performances, it's one of the the stronger efforts dealing with the effects of war at home.
The "Messenger" of the title is Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), who after returning home injured from Iraq, is partnered with the abrasive Captain Tony Stone (Best Supporting Actor Nominee Woody Harrelson) and must learn the ropes of this thankless task. Angry and traumatized from his experiences in Iraq, Will doesn't jump out as the ideal candidate to be informing families that their loved one died in combat but it's actually for that reason that he's the ideal candidate. The most fascinating aspect of the job is how it takes a certain level of emotional detachment and strength of character to deliver the news, as well as handle the inevitably unpredictable reaction to it. There's a specific protocol that has to be followed that seems cold and contradicts everything you'd want to do in that situation, but in hindsight may be the most effective method of relaying the tragic information. The very qualities we'd expect would make someone good at this (like sensitivity) are actually a recipe for disaster and a few of those disasters are narrowly avoided during Will's initiation. We find out what happens when the "N.O.K." (next of kin) isn't home but someone else is, why it matters where the messengers park their car and that using the words "died" or "killed" is mandatory.
These scenes are the ultimate test for an actors playing the next of kin, as well as for Foster and Harrelson. If you really think about, what scenario could possibly be a bigger acting challenge than this? As a father who has the exact nightmare of a reaction we've been fearing since the start of the film, the great Steve Buscemi reaffirms why he's one of the best actors around today in a span of barely three minutes. But it's widow Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton) who ends up being the most difficult recipient to watch, mainly because she almost appears to be taking the news well (or as well as can be) compared to everyone else. Of course, "well" only means differently and that's what initially draws Will to her. At least, we think. One of the smartest aspects of the script is how we're not given a clear-cut explanation for the attraction and are left to ponder for ourselves why these two damaged people have forged such a connection and whether it's morally right that they have. It helps that Morton has never been better than in this, with her casting an against-type choice you wish studios would have the guts to make more often. The relationship really doesn't go anywhere and maybe the whole point of it is that it can't. Still, it doesn't generate much excitement and results in long takes that give the film a familiarly self-concious "indie" feel.
As the running time wore on I was never bored but found myself wishing the whole film centered on just the notification scenes. Everything involving Tony's alcoholism and womanizing and Will's emotional scarring from the war just isn't as interesting or truthful as what came before. The acting and writing is way too strong for it to play as cliche but it doesn't get to that real, raw place the earlier scenes did. In showing how victims' families react to the news I gained insight I didn't have but when the focus shifted to Will and Tony it almost felt like the script was forcing insight on me I had already gotten (sometimes poorly in other films) and didn't need any more of. A sub-plot involving the distance that grows between Will and his engaged ex-girlfriend, Kelly (Jena Malone) could have been more of that but isn't because Malone is an actress capable of doing a lot with minimal screen time and it results in the film's most unintentionally truthful (if totally sensationalistic) scene involving a laughable toast by her clueless fiancee.
Foster has already proven in films like Alpha Dog that he can command the screen with ferocity but now he shows us he can do the exact opposite and give a muted, more quietly intense performance in a character driven drama and still hold the audience's attention with just as much precision. This performance seals his standing as one of his generation's most promising actors and had it not been such a competitive year in the lead actor category he would have definitely found himself among the five nominees. Harrelson (strangely resembling and sometimes channeling a young Robert Duvall) is just as strong in the most fully realized dramatic role of his career and an impressive close to a year that also saw him give a great comedic turn in Zombieland. Another less-skilled actor could have easily made this character a walking stereotype.
First-time director Oren Moverman's script may have issues but the two actors share such great chemistry that there are long stretches where you hardly notice. Ironically, had it taken a procedural approach in focusing on the notifications all the way through (much like The Hurt Locker did with bomb diffusion) and developed the drama organically from it, the film would have played even better. But wanting to like the movie more than I did isn't exactly a backhanded compliment. It's at least intelligently written and performed, showing a needed restraint that's been lacking in some of the awful, heavy-handed issue pieces this genre has produced the past few years. That this, The Hurt Locker and Brothers were all released in the same year and each took a different take on the war without resorting to the usual shameless tactics can only be seen as an encouraging sign. The Messenger would easily rank second best among them.