Dead on Arrival: 'The Messenger'' examines the ordeals of an Army casualty notification unit.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Like Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, which focused on a bomb disposal unit, The Messenger looks at another highly specialized type of soldier working for the American military during the Iraq War. Rather than being on the front lines of combat, the soldiers in director Oren Moverman’s debut film The Messenger are casualty notification officers, whose battles are being waged on the front doorsteps and in the foyers of the families of recently deceased American military personnel.
The film begins with Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) returning to duty after incurring an injury while in combat overseas in Iraq. With just a few months of time in the Army left, Montgomery is re-assigned to casualty notification duty under the command of Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson). “What you actually need to do is pretty simple,” a shaved-headed Stone instructs. “Read the guidebook. Learn the script. Stick to the script. Fill in the blanks from the casualty report.”
But Moverman’s movie – he wrote the screenplays for 1999’s Jesus’ Son, and 2007’s I’m Not There and Married Life before co-writing and directing this effort – doesn’t stick to the typical Hollywood war movie script here. Rather than going for big moments, this episodic movie goes for little revelations over the course of the duo’s six notification assignments.
Some of The Messenger’s notification scenes are more effective than others. During Montgomery’s first outing with Stone, a pregnant lady opens the door, immediately signaling where the scene is going to end up. But the most affecting notifications are those that go in unexpected directions like one where a housewife played by Samantha Morton keeps grabbing and shaking Montgomery and Stone’s hands after being informed of her husband’s death.
In its later scenes, The Messenger excels at showing the divide between Iraq War vets and regular American civilians, especially during an awkward scene where Montgomery and Stone crash an engagement party. At another point in the film, Montgomery confides to another vet that returning from combat is “like coming back from another planet.”
The spare drama is propelled forward by Foster and Harrelson’s performances. Foster, who shined as Russell Crowe’s character’s outlaw sidekick in 3:10 to Yuma, is intense and likeable as a soldier who begins rejecting military procedure for a more humanistic approach to his grim job. Meanwhile, Harrelson – whose Twinkie-loving, zombie-hating Tallahassee was one of the best things about the recent Zombieland – is clearly entering a formidable new stage in his career with this role as a square-jawed, lifetime military man who is hiding his own secret. In addition, the English actress Samantha Morton easily assimilates into Middle American life with her portrait of a war widow who becomes emotionally involved with Montgomery.
While The Messenger’s views on the collateral damage of warfare are sometimes doled out in heavy-handed scenes, the strength of this movie is that the gifted actors always deliver.