War on the Home Front
Saturday, November 21, 2009
Critics Beth Accomando and Scott Marks discuss The Messenger on the KPBS Film Club of the Air.
Following on the heels of “The Hurt Locker,” “The Messenger” (opened November 20 at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas) offers yet another unexpected perspective on the Iraq War. Be listening for our discussion of the film on the Film Club of the Air Wednesday at 10am on These Days.
With films like “Alpha Dog,” “3:10 to Yuma,” and “30 Days of Night,” actor Ben Foster made a noticeable impression. But his characters were always supporting and seemed a little off-kilter or wound too tight. But this year, Foster has two films (“Pandorum,” “The Messenger”) where he leaves behind the nervous ticks and gets the leading man role.
In “The Messenger,” Foster plays Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, a decorated officer assigned to spend his last three months of service working in Casualty Notification, a thankless job where he has to inform people that their loved ones have died. His new partner Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) explains that in this job, “There’s no such thing as a satisfied customer.”
In a sense, “The Messenger” is two films. On the one hand, it tries to document an aspect of war that is not often seen and that is how the war affects those on the home front dealing with loss. The documentary “We Regret to Inform” touched on this as well by looking to war widows – both American and Vietnamese – affected by the Vietnam War. In “The Messenger,” we follow Montgomery and Stone as they inform wives, girlfriends, and parents that the person they are waiting to have return home will never come back. The responses range from a raging father (Steve Buscemi) spitting on them to a wife (Samantha Morton) quietly shaking their hands and noting that this must be a difficult job for them. Surprisingly, Morton’s restrained response proves the more emotionally moving and devastating than the ones where people rant and rail and cry. Morton’s response is unexpected and seems to mask her real feelings, which she deems too personal and private to display in front of strangers. Her scene is the best in the film and the one that makes the loss hit home.
Morton’s character, Olivia, leads us to the second film contained in “The Messenger,” and that is a kind of gentle romance between Olivia and Montgomery. Montgomery comes back from the war with physical injuries that are obvious but as is often the case, he also suffers emotional ones. With Olivia he finds a connection that helps him heal.
Writer Oren Moverman makes his directorial debut with “The Messenger.” Previously Moverman had written “Jesus’ Son,” “I’m Not There,” and “Married Life;” all films that displayed various degrees of innovation. “The Messenger” displays some innovation as well. The perspective on the war is fresh yet Moverman and co-writer Alessandro Camon fall into a pattern that becomes predictable. Montgomery and Stone get sent out repeatedly with each assignment illustrating a different circumstance until the filmmakers have checked off all the categories they want to cover – angry parent, parent of a female soldier, ethnic family, pregnant girlfriend, informing someone through a translator, etc. Adding to the repetitive feel is that Montgomery and Stone insist on keeping to the army’s precise script about what to say and how to say it. So what begins as an innovative approach eventually becomes predictable as the filmmakers check things off their list but don’t really develop characters or themes more fully.
Moverman does let us see how some things have changed the way the military operates. Because of the rapid processing of information, Montgomery and Stone have to be ready to suit up and meet relatives at a moment’s notice so that family members do not get information on fallen soldiers through CNN, YouTube, text messages or the Internet. So modern technology has changed the way the military must deal with news, yet on another level the pain of informing someone that a loved one has died never changes and always proves difficult.
So the film moves back and forth between a portrait of soldiers’ duties stateside and an intimate tale of two people in pain connecting briefly.
The chief pleasure of “The Messenger” is getting to see Foster sink his teeth into a good role and deliver a nicely nuanced performance. Although he has moments of rage and of intense emotion, his performance also keeps a lot tightly contained. So it's nice to see him develop a character in greater depth than he has before. His scenes with Morton are the best in the film as we see these wounded individuals connect. Harrelson is less successful with Stone. Harrelson gets into “character actor” mode and comes across as too self-conscious in creating a colorful supporting character; in this case a badass with a soft heart.
“The Messenger” (rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity) serves up an often moving and effective portrait of war on the home front as well as a portrait of grief, friendship, and figuring out how to move on.
Companion viewing: “We Regret to Inform,” “The Hurt Locker,” “The Way We Get By”
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