I figured that it’d take longer than a eight days before I began steaming over my Best of 2009 list, but, alas, the ocho is upon me. Lone Scherfig’s An Education is lucky, because had I seen Oren Moverman‘s The Messenger before New Years Eve, it would’ve most certainly edged An Education off the list (The Last House on the Left, which placed tenth, had the 10-spot secured, lock and key, regardless; that ninth position was the flexible one). A steadily hectic schedule kept me from seeing Mr. Moverman’s sobering and fresh look at war-time grief, and that’s a shame.
The film sprinkles a variety of emotions, all landing right in the middle of the pie. Moverman, along with the script’s co-writer Alessandro Camon, knows when to relieve the tension with perfectly-executed humor; there’s some of the most earned levity in this film that I’ve seen in some time. The domineering sensation is that of a heart being wrenched, though, particularly in four scenes that show U.S. Staff Sergeant, and medal-holding hero, Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) and Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) carrying out their patriotic duties: they’re both Army soldiers turned Casualty Notification Officers, meaning they’re the troopers stuck with the somber task of informing a recently-killed comrade’s next-of-kin about his or her death.
Whenever this specific job requirement comes into play, The Messenger devastates. Foster and Harrelson knock on one home’s front door and greeted by a grumpy middle-aged man; they’re looking for his daughter, though Harrelson has requested her by a different last name. Turns out, she recently married an Army guy whom her pops disapproves of, behind his back. What starts off as a father’s heartbreaking realization that his kid has broken his own heart shifts into violent sobs from her and daddy being forced to swallow his pain and console. Moverman keeps the camera mere inches behind the daughter’s back, showing her father’s teary eyes as he hugs her in the foreground, and the holding-back-their-own-tears, crumbling expressions of Foster and Harrelson. It’s extremely taxing. Continued after the jump:
Moverman and Camon thankfully offer more than sights of mourning loved ones; if that’d been the case, The Messenger would feel like a cheap, dirty trick. A sadistic torture chamber. Instead, the co-scribes go to far lengths to make their characters multi-faceted, and the actors reward the A+ screenwriting with magnificent performances. Foster, as a lonely, unhappy grunt, is the film’s core, and he’s nothing less than riveting from start to finish. As slick and funny as ever, Harrelson finds the right blend of concealed anguish and for-a-show machismo; he uses sexual talk amongst fellas (one of his favorite pasttimes is musing about the women he’d love to bang) to distract others, as well as himself, from the torment within. The two fine actors reach a wonderful chemistry, an evenly matched level of strength that climaxes into a rather powerful final reel monologue from Foster. How Harrelson’s character reacts in private exposes his fronting ways in effective, weep-it-out fashion.
Too often, war-related movies (especially the recent Iraq War examples) focus on either the battlefield or the long road back to emotional normalcy at home (see Brothers). By drawing its power from those who are laden with tragic news bombshells, while standing in their own home, sometimes with a little kid nearby, The Messenger brings something new and alive. Samantha Morton, an always-grand performer at the top of her craft here, co-stars as one of the now-widows that Foster and Harrelson have to sadden; she and Foster form a tender connection, and this is where The Messenger undoubtedly earns its stripes. To have them jump right into the sack would’ve been easy, and typical; Moverman and Camon play with that expectation, taking the potential lovers on a romantic trip, ending as the film’s credits fizzle on-screen. A final image full of optimism and happiness; a crowd-pleasing, sweet wave “goodbye.” Though the bulk of it might require viewers to fight back eye-showers just as Harrelson’s assignment does, The Messenger has a thing for hope. And that’s more than fine.