When I hear people lump all movies that deal with our modern military into one category, the “Iraq movies,” it seems to me that it’s an easy way of dismissing the films without actually processing them.
For example, can you really say that “The Messenger,” the hearbroken new film from Oren Moverman, is the same genre as Katherine Bigelow’s ferocious “The Hurt Locker”? Both of them deal with soldiers who are altered permanently by their service to their country, but the films play out in such different ways that anything other than a surface comparison is unfair. Just another reminder how reductive much of what we say about films truly is, and how easy it can be to scare off an audience from a film that might well resonate with them if they gave it a chance.
“The Messenger” deals with one of the nastiest, ugliest necessary evils of military life, the soldiers who make the notifications to the next of kin when a serviceman is killed in the line of duty. Ben Foster, perpetually wired too tight, stars here as Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery, stateside after an IED went off and nearly killed him. He’s facing down the end of his latest tour and contemplating what he’s going to do once his time is up, and the Army offers him a short-term assignment helping Captain Tony Stone notify families.
Stone is played by Woody Harrelson, and when you put Harrelson and Foster onscreen alone for the majority of the running time, just the two of them throwing crazy at each other like they’re having a pie fight in a Three Stooges film, the results could easily be indulgent or unwatchable. Credit Moverman, then, with reigning in both of these crazy horses and eliciting strong, moving, sad performances from both. I don’t mind scenery chewing under the right circumstances, but too much of it can ruin an actor and teach them some really lazy habits.
Foster’s been called upon to be Twitch Psycho Guy so often lately that I was afraid he had nothing else to offer at this point, but he manages to take that character and reveal layers to it here that I didn’t expect, and that ended up redefining for me what I think Foster can do. Harrelson also surprises here, because so often these days Woody is used as a punchline from the moment he shows up onscreen. Take his work in “2012,” for example. That character is as stock and hackneyed as possible, and Woody is an easy choice for that kind of “Oh, man, I’m so craaaaaaaaazy!” energy. He does exactly what they hired him to do, and he is genuinely funny in some of his scenes, but it’s an easy call, and it doesn’t do anything to push Woody as a performer. Here, he brings all of that bizarro charm of his to bear in a very difficult role, and I like that even by the end of the film, it’s hard to get a bead on just who Captain Stone is.
For a while, the film follows a rhythm as these two very different men, each dealing with their own demons, visit various families and then destroy them with this simple message. In most cases, they barely even get out the words, “The Secretary of the Army regrets to inform you…” before you see the people fall apart. I thought Steve Buscemi was particularly wrenching in his brief role, his nuclear-force grief turning quickly to anger that needs some target. But when they deliver the bad news to Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton), her reaction isn’t what they expect, and Montgomery finds himself drawn to this sad-eyed woman.
There is no giant dramatic arc that plays out. If you think the film’s a love story, you’d be wrong, and if you think it’s going to turn into a buddy film about healing, you’d also be wrong. Moverman and his co-writer Alessandro Camon don’t seem interested in offering up a film that fits into any easy definition, and the result is something affecting, although stealthy about it. We’re so used to seeing films that offer up easy-to-digest emotion that a movie like this stands out precisely because of how low-key it tries to be. By looking directly at something that our media works overtime to protect us from, “The Messenger” challenges us to reflect on the real human toll that any war takes. Every single one of those people who become an overseas statistic leave behind families and friends, communities that are devastated because of their loss. We look away because we don’t want to think about it, and our government “protects us” by keeping all those caskets away from cameras.
Quick aside: Montgomery is struggling to get over a relationship that fell apart when he was shipped overseas, and the film opens with a sad, torrid encounter with Kelly (Jena Malone), the girl who broke his heart, and it’s a fairly stark sexual encounter. Seeing Jena Malone do a nude scene makes me feel older than I can even express. I need to ask Hollywood to officially stop letting anyone age, because I still think of Malone as “that talented kid,” and if she’s an adult now, doing this kind of material, then I must be a thousand years old.
Moverman is a talented writer, having crafted the scripts for “I’m Not There,” “Married Life,” and “Jesus’ Son,” and this marks a strong debut for him as a director as well. This is a guy worth paying attention to in the future, and “The Messenger” is a film worth seeing now. The film is playing in limited release right now, and you should make the effort to track it down if possible.
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