Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Movie Review: The Messenger

The Messenger ****
Directed by:
Oren Moverman
Written By: Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman.
Starring: Ben Foster (Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery), Woody Harrelson (Captain Tony Stone), Samantha Morton (Olivia Pitterson), Jena Malone (Kelly), Eamonn Walker (Colonel Stuart Dorsett), Steve Buscemi (Dale Martin), Jahmir Duran-Abreau (Matt Pitterson).

How many times have we seen a scene in a movie where a car pulls up in front of an army wife’s house, and two soldiers in dress uniform get out? Just last week, I saw Brothers in which such a scene played out. In that movie, like so many others, the scene cuts away before the two men in dress uniforms actually speaks. Every army spouse knows what this visit means, and because we’ve seen it so many times in the movies, every audience member does to. Their husband, son, wife, daughter whatever, has been killed in the line of duty, and these men are there to inform them.

The Messenger, the debut directorial film by talented screenwriter Oren Moverman looks at this scene from the opposite side. It stars Ben Foster as Will Montgomery, just home from Iraq, where he injured both his eye and his leg making him unfit for combat duty. He trains people on how to fix their vehicles out in the desert, and is waiting out the last three months of his enlistment, when he gets a new assignment. He reports to Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), of the Causality Informant team. Their job is to go to the homes of loved ones killed in Iraq and tell them that they will not be coming home. They see a lot of tears and take a lot of verbal abuse.

Stone has been doing this for years, and takes a certain kind of pride in his work. He knows just how to deliver the news, and advises Will not to get involved. Stick to the script, tell them the information, and get out of there as quickly as possible. They aren’t shrinks or grief counselors (those come after they leave), but in an era of almost immediate news reports, they need to beat everyone else to the information, so that the loved ones don’t hear about the death from Fox News or somewhere else.

The two men couldn’t be more different from each other, but they still bond quickly. Probably because no one else really understands what it is they do. Stone talks almost constantly, about just about everything. He saw active duty in Desert Storm, and although he tries to act tough, he knows that what he saw is nothing compared to Will. Will was a “hero” in Iraq, but he doesn’t like to talk about it at all. He doesn’t talk about a lot of things that have hurt him. His girlfriend Kelly (Jena Malone) found a new guy when he was in Iraq, and although it is clear that he still loves her, and she him, she isn’t going to break up with the new guy for Will. There scenes together are painful to watch, and Malone in a small role delivers a wonderful performance. When she looks at Will it’s with a mixture of love and pity. He cannot stand to be looked at that way.

We see them break the news to a lot of different people throughout the course of the movie, and the reactions are what we expect. There is a lot of crying and denial. Steve Buscemi delivers an unforgettable performance as a father who starts to scream at the men wondering why they are safe at home, while his son died in Iraq. But it is the strangely quiet reaction of Olivia (Samantha Morton) that haunts Will. He returns to her house again and again, and there are hints at perhaps a romance blooming between these two, even though both know that it would be wrong.

The Messenger is more a movie about writing and performance than about visuals, although Moverman is solid behind the camera. But what really works here is the screenplay, which is brought to life by the actors, all of whom are playing difficult roles. Foster is one of the best actors of his generation, but here delivers a more subdued performance than we are used to seeing from him. He is in pain, both physical and emotional, and he keeps it bottled up. Harrelson, having a wonderful year of career resurgence, is just as good as Stone, the boastful one, the one who won’t shut up. It is all a cover to keep his demons at bay, but eventually they will come roaring back. Morton has perhaps the most difficult role, as she has to ride the most intense emotional changes in the movie. One of the best actresses in the world, Morton takes what could have been an unbelievable character, and makes her real. She fleshes her out. All three deserve Oscar consideration.

The Messenger is not an easy or fun film to watch, but it is a great one. Like The Hurt Locker earlier this year, it is a film about the current war in Iraq that drains the politics almost completely out of the equation. It doesn’t matter if you are for or against the war. Soldiers are still over there fighting and dying. And someone needs to tell their families when they do.

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