Guest Review: The Messenger

Last year at Sundance, I caught a screening of Oren Moverman’s The Messenger (you can read my review here).  In the chaos of the festival, I never really had the time to sit down and write out a decent review.   Thankfully, my new found friend, and fellow cinephile, Justin, has written a much more thorough and thoughtful piece on the film.  We differ in our opinions, but his review is convincing enough, I’m going to give The Messenger another chance.

The Messenger

By: Justin Eisinger

Acclaimed director Francois Truffaut famously said that it was impossible to make an anti-war film because all war films inadvertently made war look exciting. Truffaut didn’t live to see The Messenger. He would have applauded it.

The Messenger, directed by Oren Moverman, doesn’t feature any on-screen depictions of war. No one gets shot. Nothing gets blown-up. Yet, it deals with the effects of war on the psyche of the soldier as frankly as any movie since Full Metal Jacket. One scene features an emotional re-telling of a bloody war scene. It hits harder than an entire reel’s worth of graphic visuals.

Moverman’s debut film stars Ben Foster as Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery. Will is a not just a good soldier, but a veritable war hero, returning to the US because of wounds suffered in action. His serious, unflappable demeanor is an elaborate disguise, masking a hidden vulnerability. As the film opens, we see Will placing eye drops in his wounded left eye. They stream down his face like tears.

The stoic Montgomery would never permit himself to cry, however. But, he is clearly disillusioned with the everyday world he has returned to. He has no family to speak of, and Kelly (Jena Malone), his ex-girlfriend, has moved on and is in a serious relationship with some twerp named Alan (Michael Chernus). Foster is terrific in the role, slowly revealing the painful yearning that hides behind his rough exterior. His army regimented physical and verbal expressions carefully belie a vicious rage threatening to be unleashed.

Montgomery has no coping mechanisms, no healthy way of releasing his pent-up anger. This makes him a strange choice for a Casualty Notification Team, responsible for the delicate task of informing next-of-kin civilians that their loves one have been killed in duty. Will can’t even recognize his own grief, let alone the grief of strangers.

His commanding officer for the task is Captain Tony Stone, played by Woody Harrelson. As strong as Foster is in the lead role, Harrelson owns this movie. From the first time we see him, looking like some terrifying cross between Jack Nicholson in The Last Detail and pro wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Harrelson radiates a menacing penchant for violence. His blunt sense of humor doesn’t relieve tension, but creates it.

Stone instructs Montgomery on the essentials of the job, treating a seemingly emotional situation with a harsh practicality. For Stone, who never got his war like Montgomery had Iraq, these notifications represent a military operation. And he handles it with all the deliberation and personality of an air-raid. The notifications are tense, harrowing scenes that explode with raw emotion.

No war film has ever been made from this unusual perspective. Avoiding climatic battles, and concentrating solely on war’s irrevocable after-effects, Overman has made a war film that doesn’t even remotely glorify war. Conversely, it shows the struggle of a soldier to pick up the pieces of his life at home, as well as the trauma inflicted on the families of those not fortunate enough to return.

Writer/Director Moverman loses his focus in the film’s second half as Montgomery becomes entangled in a sticky romantic situation with one of the widows he notifies. The widow, Olivia, is played skillfully by Samantha Morton, and the scenes between her and Foster are tender and genuine. But the audience never truly buys their relationship. Certainly, they both find themselves abandoned and alone. But Moverman never establishes what draws them together besides their mutual desperation. Perhaps that could be sufficient in another film, but we care too much about these characters to see them settle for that.

The film is unflinchingly realistic, which serves to develop our emotional connection with Montgomery, Stone, and Olivia. The only music in the film is “source music,” meaning it comes from within the movie: a stereo, a radio, etc. The struggles of a newly returned solider to a home that is strikingly alien are perfectly realized. “The Messenger” strikes only a few false notes, but unfortunately, they stand out in comparison to the rest of the film’s natural authenticity. One occurs when Montgomery and Stone notify a father played by Steve Buscemi. Buscemi is a fine actor, but here, he comes across as just that – an actor, not a father being informed of his son’s death. His reaction is too staged, and seems silly when compared to the terrific job done by the other, lesser-known actors who play the unlucky recipients.

Qualms aside, The Messenger is a unique look at the shattering effect war has not only on soldiers, but on the families they leave behind. Thankfully, the film finds a hopeful, redemptive tone in its final act, allowing for some much needed levity. But Overman’s message sticks with you. Truffaut would be stunned – here is a film that condemns war to its very core.

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