Flickering Myth’s writing team pick out those hidden gems you might have missed; next up is Brogan Morris with…
The Messenger, 2009.
Directed by Oren Moverman.
Starring Ben Foster, Samantha Morton, Woody Harrelson, Steve Buscemi, and Jena Malone.
An American soldier struggles with an ethical dilemma when he becomes involved with a widow of a fallen officer.
Iraq War movies have been notorious misfires, The Hurt Locker excepted – that’s the commonly held view. And though Kathryn Bigelow’s gonzo thriller is the work of a master, one of the few recent deserving Best Picture Oscar winners, it’s Oren Moverman’s The Messenger that lingers for longer.
There’s a reason why you may never have heard of The Messenger. There was some awards buzz circling the film around the 2010 Academy Awards, particularly for Woody Harrelson’s supporting turn as a recovering alcoholic army Captain. But any such talk had long passed by the time The Messenger hit the UK, released in 2011, two years on from its US premiere. The film has still barely been seen outside of America, with foreign distribution mostly dumping it wherever and whenever (probably wary due to the failure of those other Iraq War movies – even The Hurt Locker was a flop).
Set during the time of the war in Iraq, The Messenger situates itself in the US for its entirety. But it deals with the conflict via a haunted soldier, for whom the battles are etched across his face like a road map. This is Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, played by Ben Foster in a breakout starring role, a war hero injured and sent home to finish his career as a Casualty Notification officer. He and commanding officer Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) spend their days in army green notifying a seemingly endless number of complete strangers – including a cameoing Steve Buscemi, and Samantha Morton as the widow Will forms an attachment to – that their loved ones have died overseas.
Suffice to say, though moments of sly humour warm it up, The Messenger is not a feelgood ride. What it has to offer is a deceptively minimal yet secretly affecting approach – this is writer-director Oren Moverman’s first feature, but his skill with tone, economy and especially drawing out great performances wouldn’t suggest it. And it’s in an unlikely duet of star performances that his film works most effectively.
Ben Foster has always had a knack for playing angry men, only his human rage here produces one of his most sympathetic characters. He’s like a wounded beast – sensitive, but constantly on the defensive. He’s riddled with aching loneliness, guilt and regret, but for reasons largely unknown. We gather little about Will’s history, not least his time in the field, but you get the impression Foster knows everything – it’s been internalised, and it pours from his every gesture.
Which isn’t to say Harrelson is bad; far from it. This one of his best, in fact (he’d go on to better it with a further Moverman collaboration, Rampart), doing his menacing thing so well it’s hard to remember he started out his career as a loveable goofball in an NBC sitcom. It’s just that The Messenger is a two-hander, not the one-man show awards talk might have originally had audiences believe.
For as harrowing as the scenes of ‘notification’ are, it’s the relationship between Montgomery and Stone that hits hardest, fixing the film together thanks to a totally convincing chemistry between Foster and Harrelson. Scenes of them drunkenly playing at soldiers in a parking lot or breaking down together after confessions (Will heartbreakingly tells Stone of his suicide attempt over late night beers) compel, though not always in a difficult, bleak way. The film, through this deeply felt friendship, offers catharsis.
In 2010, The Messenger acted as the perfect counterpoint to the adrenalized The Hurt Locker. The only place Bigelow’s loud, action-heavy film failed to convince was in its scenes set back home, but The Messenger – quiet, thoughtful, emotionally exhausting – picked up the pieces. Moverman’s film is about the disquieting silence that comes after war, from gunfire.
Will’s role as a Casualty Notification officer is a more literal representation of the inner emotional turmoil so many newly-returned soldiers must face. Moverman seems to posit the idea that the only way to peace for such a soldier is to find whatever companionship he can amidst the rubble, but he says it in such an honest, human way that it utterly devastates.
Brogan Morris – Lover of film, writer of words, pretentious beyond belief. Thinks Scorsese and Kubrick are the kings of cinema, but PT Anderson and David Fincher are the young princes. Follow Brogan on Twitter if you can take shameless self-promotion.