Thursday, November 26, 2009

Film Review: The Messenger

Films portraying U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq have a bit of a bad reputation save for The Hurt Locker and a few others. Most are loaded with ideology and preach no more coherently than a cable-news pundit. Those that examine the reintegration period when soldiers return home have not had as much of a chance to shine.

The Messenger, from first-time director Oren Moverman, is about post-Iraq as much as it is about any war. The film refrains from flashing to gritty warfare footage and from dwelling on soldier’s stories until it’s absolutely necessary. There is wrenching drama in observing the aftermath of war on all those directly or indirectly connected to the U.S. involvement in the Middle East. Despite weak pacing in the second hour, The Messenger articulately provides fascinating profiles of two men forever scarred from fighting on the front lines – with a more concentrated focus than other post-Deer Hunter coming-home fare.

Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is back home in New Jersey stationed at Fort Dix with no family aside from an ex-girlfriend who moved onto a new suitor in his absence. Combating loneliness, he finds employment notifying families of their spouses or kin’s recent death in the military overseas. Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) accompanies Will on each home visit, enforcing a strict list of orders that prohibit any subjective empathy with the bereaved. Will violates the job’s contract when he develops a relationship with a shy widow Olivia (Samantha Morton).

The first hour of the film serves as an insightful, joltingly emotional in-depth look, more moving than any newspaper feature, into the job of a casualty notifications officer. It is harrowing work that requires enormous discipline on the part of the officer. Identifying with Will and Tony as dutiful workers on the job, you can’t help but feel strangely dissonant when frustrated that a distraught father (Steve Buscemi) of a deceased soldier lunges out at them, threatening violence. The casualty’s parents aren’t the bad guys, but the officers’ mission as messengers of death isn’t as esoteric from an outsider’s perspective now.

The disparity between those who have been directly affected by the war and those haven’t is a widening crevasse. The same goes for the duality of the responsibilities of a messenger in delivering bad news and/or good news. To have shared in the experience either on the front lines or in losing a loved one abroad is to suffer a wound that can’t easily be healed.

Foster, appropriately unhinged, is a fine actor in his own right but too often falls one tier below method performer Ryan Gosling. Harrelson, on a roll in 2009, steals the show as he did in October’s buddy horror-comedy Zombieland.

The second hour hits a snag in which the plot tends to meander about. One such sluggish scene between Will and Olivia packed no nuance, no sense of pacing nor comprehension of fluidity. The couple’s relationship is never developed thoroughly and Olivia always appears like she could care less. The impact of the first hour slightly flattens in retrospect.

Unlike the majority of recent Iraq fare, Moverman’s downer, anchored by two powerful lead performances, doesn’t bite off more than it can chew in showcasing the inherently fractured nature of the outcast veteran.

[Apollo's] Hipness rating: 5 out of 10
[Apollo's] Actual rating: 7 out of 10

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