December 3, 2009

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The Messenger (R)
The Secretary of the Army regrets the loss of your loved one but Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson are the ones who have to break the news in The Messenger, a very touching and human way to look at war.

Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Foster) is nursing eye and leg wounds from his tour in Iraq and is sent stateside to serve out his time left with the Army. He finds himself assigned to work with Capt. Tony Stone (Harrelson), a man who hasn’t seen war since the first Gulf war and whose current job includes Casualty Notification. That is, when a solider dies, Montgomery and Stone have to find their next of kin and deliver the Secretary of the Army’s deep regret that their son or daughter or husband or wife has died, whether in combat or as a result of an accident or however. They say this to a mother who starts crying almost as soon as she sees them, to a man who throws up as Montgomery gets the words out. They say this to a father who doesn’t speak English and is caring for his now-deceased daughter’s child, to a girlfriend who is carrying a soldier’s unborn child. They say this to a girl who appears barely out of her teens and hasn’t yet told her father that she’s married. They are slapped, they are spit on, they are run off lawns. They cling desperately to their script, avoid touching the NOK, as Stone calls the family members, and try to get out of the situation as quickly as possible.

At one home, the shocked wife, Olivia (Samantha Morton), shakes their hands twice and apologizes for how hard it must be on them. Something about her dazed state captures Will’s attention and he finds himself keeping an eye on her.

Their assignment, in a word, sucks. Specifically, it sucks at their soul, pushing them to drink and act recklessly to not think about the sorrow they are mired in. At one point, Tony says he thinks all the soldiers’ funerals should be on TV — let people see the grief, he says. Are we at war or aren’t we, he says. And to some extent, that’s what The Messenger is — a reminder that we are at war, and what war looks like. It’s not the explosions and the shattered body parts that we see here, as in The Hurt Locker. It’s the shattered lives, the wrecked emotions, the explosions of grief. This is the cost of war — and it’s easy to forget when you don’t see it. The Messenger holds it up and makes you look.

The Messenger does this with some truly superb performances — Ben Foster (excellent in the lead, though no surprise to anyone who saw his standout supporting role in 3:10 to Yuma), Samantha Morton (bringing much more to the role than you initially think will be there), Woody Harrelson (I know — it’s amazing). It’s a term from wars past but these characters in particular stand out because they are shell-shocked, stunned in ways that make them think and behave just a bit off. Steve Buscemi has a small role as one of the notified fathers and he does this too — his actions are nonsensical unless viewed in the context of his grief.

I don’t think this movie is, strictly speaking, anti-war. The Messenger doesn’t comment on the war, it comments on war — which I suppose can seem anti-war but doesn’t have to be. When the entire world is threatened by an alliance of land-grabbing homicidal dictators, you understand that it’s worth it to cause this kind of homefront pain and lasting warrior injury. But not all wars are as clear. The Messenger isn’t a call to fight or not fight, it’s an instruction to look at all the casualties, at home and abroad. A

Rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity. Directed by Oren Moverman and written by Moverman and Alessandro Camon, The Messenger is an hour and 45 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Oscilloscope Pictures.