Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Messenger

The Messenger, an edgy, fluid little masterpiece, focuses on a few weeks in the lives of two army officers whose task is to inform the next-of-kin that their sons, husbands, daughters have been killed in action. Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) has been doing it for years; his assistant Will (Ben Foster) is brand new to the job.

Harrelson is driven by traditional military machismo, but Foster is recovering from injuries sustained in combat and also struggling to adjust to life back home in the states. His girlfriend has moved on to something new and he's simmering with hurt and rage as a result of his tour of duty. Foster hates his new assignment and his boss.

The missions are assigned without warning and they’re unspeakably sad for the most part. Poor, affluent, white, black, Latino—the family situations are different and the reactions are too, but your heart will be in your throat repeatedly as the story develops. These episodes take up only a quarter of the film, however. They're accompanied by plenty of slice-of-life sequences and also an awkward romance that develops between Foster and one of the women who’s been recently widowed. (The widow is played by Samantha Morton, whom you may remember from the equally brilliant film In America.) There are moments of humor scattered throughout the film as the two officers get to know one another, go drinking or fishing together, and crash the engagement party of Foster’s ex-girlfriend and end up playing “army” in the parking lot outside the banquet hall.

Every scene contributes in one way or another to create a powerful portrait of the devastations of war, but it would be a mistake to label it an “anti-war” film. Rather, it places the operations of war firmly within the context of civilian life, exposing the day-to-day humanity of those who fight as well as the heroic sacrifices they often willingly make. (The men and women we see in the background on base are, in fact, real soldiers that have just returned from active duty.)

How was the director, Oren Moverman, able to create such a powerful sense of hurt and loss on the screen? In an interview with the Boston Globe , Foster remarked: “No scenes were rehearsed in the picture. For the notifications, he kept us separate from the people we were notifying. He talked to us separately. We never met them until we were knocking on the door. And these scenes were shot in single takes. There was rarely any coverage. We were encouraged to go off book, and most of all, listen to each other. The drug of it all is getting lost with other actors and forgetting that you’re not performing at someone, that you’re together in it... I think that’s what makes Oren Moverman one of the future greats, period. He’s more interested in the messiness of the experience, as am I.”

The Messenger
combines the best features of documentary with a gripping yet highly atmospheric narrative in which every scene contributes to the emotional impact—a “must-see” that will probably be gone from theaters well before Christmas.

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