REVIEW: The Messenger [2009]

“No such thing as a satisfied customer”

Most times I feel that the story of a soldier’s return home is more interesting than anything that might have happened while overseas in battle. I think it has a lot to do with my enjoyment in a good story told with riveting performances, and what subject matter can deliver unforgettable acting fodder than readjusting to civilian life post-military? Oren Moverman’s film The Messenger doesn’t fall into that category completely as our main character still has three months of his tour before being discharged, but the emotions and the memories of what happened in Iraq are still there, hidden beneath a hard exterior, wanting to be both expressed and forgotten at the same time. A war hero who saved the lives of many of his comrades during a firefight, Will Montgomery has a bum leg and a spotty eye for his troubles, so instead of being sent back, he is given the duty of telling next of kin that their spouse, child, sibling has been killed.

It’s not quite the job someone who has just gotten back to America after rough fighting would wish for, but it is what has been given to him and the army needs standup soldiers to do it. We as an audience don’t really know what occurred in Iraq, but we can see the pain and sorrow behind Ben Foster’s eyes, portraying Will. He becomes quiet when spoken to as a hero and he takes the new job more as a responsibility than anything he wants to do. It is one that has been given to him and he will do it. Telling his superior officer and trainer, Woody Harrelson’s Captain Tony Stone, that he will take point on only his second dispatch, he is out to prove he can do it. The rules state that you do not touch the next of kin, you do not use vague words like ‘gone’ or ‘fallen’, instead it is killed or died, and you do not talk to anyone but the person you’ve been assigned. The army doesn’t want the fishbowl nature of a 21st century world to break the news to a family through the internet or a nightly broadcast, they want to be the ones to do it. The army is a family and they take care of their own. So, to do the job, one must be strong enough to not cry, composed enough to not react when hit or berated, and compassionate enough to deliver the news with sympathy and clarity.

These two see it all during the course of their mission. We see the pregnant girlfriend offering tea while waiting for the deceased’s mother to arrive back home; the angry, inconsolable father who turns his sorrow into abuse on the messengers; the father in a small apartment watching his daughter’s baby while she was off to war; and the unknowing father-in-law just discovering his daughter got married and having his rage turn quickly to compassion when the news is broken. This job alone could drive a man to drink whether he had served time first or not. Of course, for that reason, Harrelson’s character has been sober for three years, (his father was an alcoholic), and Foster has taken to sleeping on the floor with only a desk lamp serving as light in his room. These two men have known nothing else but the army and for some reason have made this heartbreaking job into a career, a service for the men and women who don’t get a happy ending when all is said and done. Harrelson fought in the Gulf War and so his getting in the line of emotional fire is his battle, and Foster seems to be continuing this work as a sort of atonement for what happened during his stay in the Middle East.

While the interactions between these two soldiers, on the job or off of it in bars and commiserating or trying to pick up women, there also enters a subplot of love. Foster lost his girlfriend to another man while he was gone and has not gotten over it—her picking him up when released from the hospital for a conjugal visit surely doesn’t help his head in that respect any. And it ends up that Foster’s Will has much more heart than he may have originally let on to. He wants to treat these victims as human beings and be able to console them, but it is not his job to do so. As a result, he starts to get close to one widow, (the always fantastic Samantha Morton), creating a relationship that could be construed as many things other than one of comforting through grief. He has lost the only girl he had ever known and she a husband that began to choose the army over her. He may be an insensitive scumbag and she a slut, but it could also just be that these two need each other in tough times. How this pairing evolves and where it ends up had the potential to be very wrong morally, but I think Moverman and Alessandro Camon wrote it just right with complete honesty and grace. Their time together only adds another layer to Foster’s role, fleshing out his motivations and his troubles.

The Messenger is not some big bombastic tale that will be shoved in your face or action-packed. It is a very deliberately paced and intelligently told drama delving into the psyche of broken men looking for answers. The entire thing is driven by Foster and Harrelson’s stirring portrayals as they put up facades and barriers to their true selves, only letting the real people inside out when a level of trust can be seen. Stone says early on about how men don’t ask for directions and when the going gets tough you must man-up to the occasion, but all those words are social constraints he has allowed himself to become a part of. The film shows you what makes up who he really is and opens Will Montgomery as well, eventually telling us what really happened to his eye in a powerful scene towards the end, a full culmination of everything that had happened and an official nail into the bond these men have created between each other. There are laughs along the way and tears for sure, and with these two actors at the top of their game—and some real nice supporting work from the likes of Morton and Steve Buscemi—the whole becomes a journey worthy of your time. It’s a look into the face of humanity and the strength of the soul. Once you come back from seeing war, you don’t always get the chance to forget about it to become an insurance salesman.

The Messenger 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] Woody Harrelson as Anthony ‘Tony’ Stone and Ben Foster as Will Montgomery in Oscilloscope Pictures’ The Messenger. Copyright © Oscilloscope Pictures
[2] Woody Harrelson star as Anthony ‘Tony’ Stone in Oscilloscope Pictures’ The Messenger. Copyright © Oscilloscope Pictures


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