– Summary –
Director : Oren Moverman
Year Of Release : 2009
Principal Cast : Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Steve Buscemi, Jena Malone.
Approx Running Time : 113 Minutes
Synopsis: Home after being injured in combat, war hero Sargent Will Montgomery is assigned to the Army’s Casualty Notification team – telling families their serving relative has been killed. Disliking this duty, he is mentored by fellow soldier Tony Stone, and while being taught how to deliver bad news, finds himself drawn to the recently widowed Olivia, something he’s told he should not do.
What we think : Terrific dramatic turn by both Foster and Harrelson is a searing look at how the US military conducts itself in this awful scenario, The Messenger is riveting viewing. While Harrelson steals every scene he’s in, this is Ben Foster’s movie – and he kills it into oblivion with a grim, clenched-up, powerful performance that echoes a young Robert DeNiro. This is a truly great film.
It’s a simple fact of life – people die. It’s an equally simple fact of life: people don’t like dealing with death. We’d rather box it up (if you know what I mean) and hide the concept of death away like it’s a bogey monster, avoid dealing with it and hope it just goes away. One of the hardest jobs I think people would have to do is being responsible for informing a family that their loved one has passed away. Doctors and nurses do it, as do the police, and, as shown in The Messenger, the military must do it too. Informing the next of kin that a member of their family has passed is always hard, although I think it’s especially hardest for those expectantly waiting for that loved one to return home. Soldiers go to war knowing the risk that they might never come home, but for those left behind, the wait for that return can be a truly excruciating one. As the husband to the daughter of an Army man, I’ve experienced first hand the relief and emotion of having a loved one returned safely to home shores – and can only imagine that the pain of that constant dread and fear being realized as fact must be horrendous indeed. When my wife and I sat down to watch The Messenger, we viewed it with all these thoughts running through our mind – and I can tell you, The Messenger moved us both.
War hero Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) has returned home from duty after being injured by an IED in Iraq. After recuperating, he’s seconded by the Army to serve out his enlistment (a remaining period of some three months) in the Casualty Notification Team, delivering the news of a solders death to their family. Will initially considers this task to be a menial one, a “desk job”, as it were, until he meets his partner and mentor, Captain Stone (Woody Harrelson), who begins to instruct him on the right and wrongs ways to deliver such horrible news. Together, they inform a variety of families that their sons, daughters, bothers, sisters or husbands have been killed – and one such recipient strikes a chord with Will; Olivia (Samantha Morton) is a young, single-child parent whose husband has just been killed, and Will forms a friendship, a bond, with the woman that conflicts with his own (almost) repressed resentment at his current life position. As their friendship grows from a platonic one to something more, he must also balance the feelings he has for his long-time f*ck-buddy Kelly (Jena Malone), whose impending engagement serves to further add fuel to Will’s growing frustration.
The Messenger is a simple, elegantly told film, filled with raw emotion and an underlying tension that something bad is always “just about to happen”. Frankly, delivering notification of death to people should be considered a form of torture by international lawmakers, I think. It’s a horrible – albeit necessary – job, and one which needs the utmost care and compassion when performing. Neither Will nor Stone are compassionate characters, at least not externally, and it’s during the course of this film in which we see their respective emotional walls come down – gradually. The anguish they cause through their job is in direct correlation with their own internal struggles as both men and soldiers – Will struggles with his anger at what happened to make him a “war hero”, while Stone has barricaded his emotions away with jokes and random sex with young girls; neither of them are functioning properly, and it’s only through this task that they bond, break down, and ultimately try and become better men. The script is low-key, with little ambiguity working against it, and that, coupled with the twin performances of the two leads, both of whom are extraordinarily good here, ensure The Messenger is one hell of a terrific film.
I’ve always stated that Ben Foster is one day going to win an Oscar. Harrelson perhaps less so, because I see him more as a darkly comedic actor less subtle than his contemporaries, and disinclined to scoop up a major gong for his work. I guess I’ve been proven wrong, though, with Harrelson gaining an Oscar nomination out of this, while Foster seems to have had very little recognition thrown his way, a slight I think is unwarranted. Foster’s performance as Will is as good as, if not better than, Harrelson’s turn as Stone, and I found myself more in tune with the younger actor throughout than I did Woody’s belligerent buffoonery as the elder statesman of this cast. Samantha Morton is well cast as Olivia, portraying the despair, grief and confused attraction to Foster’s Will all with the sensitivity not to overact the role. Steve Buscemi has a truly understated cameo – of all those affected by the news Will gives them, his is by far the most moving and poignant.
Director Oren Moverman, who was nominated for an Oscar for his work on the script (alongside co-writer Alessandro Camon), directs this film with restraint – I’m not sure if he was nervous in his debut directorial role, or if this was intended, but I got the sense that he wanted his camera to be almost documentary-style in nature, with a visceral rawness to it that only serves to add to the film’s message of hope out of despair. He isn’t afraid to let a scene run in one take, he holds the viewers attention on a moment, several moments, ensuring the impact of each scene is drawn to its natural strengths, before giving sweet respite. Moverman’s decision not to include any musical score (save what we hear on a radio or other in-context device) for the film speaks volumes, both within the film and without – it’s not until the final credits that I actually noticed a lack of musical score for the film, and I found myself genuinely surprised. Guess that means the film moved me so much without it, it didn’t need to be competing with music to make its point. And I think that is the point, dear reader – Moverman’s film is a testament both to those who serve, and the families they leave behind, and preachy, melancholy or uplifting music isn’t required to hammer home the point. In fact, the film may have been lesser for it, had a score been included.
The Messenger isn’t an easy film to enjoy, and is certainly heavy going for the message it leaves us with. The arc both our leads go on is never quite what you’d expect, and the way in which Moverman elicits emotion from us the viewer is to put us right into the raw, emotional heart of grief – on both sides of the message – and leave us there. It’s confronting, powerful stuff, and I reiterate that at some point in the future, Ben Foster will get himself an Oscar. He should have at least been nominated for his role here. The Messenger is a terrific film, and deserves your time.