Judge Chris Claro sends his message in a bottle of nice Chanti.
The secretary of the army regrets to inform you…
As much a cinema staple as battlefield epics, the home front war movie shows how the repercussions of military service are felt by both service people and those they leave behind. Whether it's veterans of World War II in William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, or the disabled, disillusioned solder back from Vietnam and trying to stanch his bitterness and rage at having bought the military's bill of goods in Hal Ashby's Coming Home, Hollywood has shown that, for members of the military, the presumably peaceful home front is fraught with as much emotional danger as any distant desert firefight.
Oran Moverman's The Messenger carries on the tradition of those and other home front movies, in which the wounds suffered by those the soldiers leave behind—permanently—leave psychic scars that never heal.
Facts of the Case
Col. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson, Transsiberian) is a career army man burdened with the realization that his battlefield experience is minimal at best. As a casualty notification officer, Stone's duty "from 0600 to 2200 hours" is to personally inform families of the war deaths of their sons, daughters, husbands, and wives. Stone is accompanied on his missions by Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster, 3:10 to Yuma), a decorated young soldier still recovering from injuries suffered in battle. Under Stone's tutelage, Montgomery learns the methods and protocols of one of the most harrowing jobs in the military.
With its deceptively spare, almost non-existent plotline, The Messenger is both a quietly powerful statement on the horrors of war, and a character study of two men who confront them on a daily basis. Far from the scene of the deaths on which they report, Stone and Montgomery must stand, mute and inert, as they simultaneously provide and invade upon the most intimate, devastating, wrenching moment in the lives of soldiers' families. Observing strict rules about who can be notified and how the survivors can—or can't—be consoled, the two soldiers are forced to sacrifice a measure of their humanity in the name of dispassionate protocol.
The toll the job takes on Stone and Montgomery is at the heart of the flawed but literate, Oscar-nominated script co-written by Moverman and Alessandro Camon. Experiencing the grief of others forces the soldiers to steel themselves agains the incursions of their own emotions. In maintaining the military propriety their assignment demands, Stone and Montgomery are denied the outlet that they, even more than their battlefield brethren, desperately need.
Nowhere is this borne out more strongly than in the numerous notification scenes. In order to emphasize the emotional havoc such communication wreaks, Moverman shot these scenes with a handheld camera, and, according to the disc's excellent commentary track, allowed the actors to improvise their responses to the news. What results are wrenching explosions of grief, sometimes violent, and always so palpable and authentic that the audience, like Stone and Montgomery, will feel as if they are violating a sacred moment.
The acting in The Messenger is note-perfect. Woody Harrelson makes his lonely Stone—a soldier who missed his chance to be a Soldier—a fully-realized character, whose stolidity is both his strongest tool and his biggest weakness. In Harrelson's masterful portrayal, the Stone facade, which has withstood a quarter-century of army weathering, starts to show subtle signs of wear due to the emotional battering his job imparts.
Ben Foster is a revelation as Montgomery, who feels anything but heroic in the aftermath of a firefight in which he saved two fellow soldiers. Lonely, isolate, and having trouble with his vision—one of the few heavyhanded symbols in the Moverman/Camon script—Montgomery is torn by the demands of his status as notification officer. Eager to provide respectful closure to the bereaved but cognizant of his limits, Montgomery's reliance on pounding music, beer, and the occasional fist through a wall symbolize the conflict that he endures long after his last battle. Foster's quiet containment—and periodic release—makes the character's emotional unease moving and affecting.
As a wife who Stone and Montgomery must notify, Samantha Morton is both touching and virtually unrecognizable. As played by Morton, Olivia finds herself drawn, tentatively, to Montgomery's well-intentioned ministrations. Though grief-stricken, Olivia is determined to honor her husband's memory and tend to their son. Morton's sad, quiet depiction of the too-young widow completes the film's trifecta of excellent performances.
Shot in 2.35:1 ratio, Moverman makes the most of the widescreen, giving the rural New Jersey locations of The Messenger almost a documentary look. The widescreen is equally effective for the traumatic notification scenes, with the restless camera highlighting the way the bereaved seem to almost shrink into space upon hearing about the death of their loved one. The 5.1 surround track offers a clean, clear balance between the sometimes-quiet dialogue and the filmÕs frequent music.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Messenger stumbles slightly due to the somewhat schematic nature of its script. The back-and-forth structure of notification scenes alternating with those revealing elements of the characters gets a touch repetitive. And the scriptÕs one glaring misstep is a scene in which the soldiers make a sloppily drunken visit to the wedding of MontgomeryÕs former girlfriend. The sequence neither displays the restraint of the rest of the film, nor does it do anything to further the plot or character development.
The Messenger is a rare anti-war film that doesn't engage in shrill polemics to convey its message. Its muted tone and thoughtful performances infuse it with a quiet power that stays with the viewer long after the film ends.
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