The Messenger (2009)

The Messenger

Film review by: Witney Seibold

It’s an old story. A soldier has been trained and conditioned to be a fighter. They have simple relationships with their peers, and are men of action. Relaxation involves slugging back a few brews and sharing war stories. And then the soldier is taken out of the war, and is left with a void they never thought they’d have to deal with.

The soldier in question in Oren Moverman’s “The Messenger” is Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, played with a wounded intensity by an underrated Ben Foster. Will has a glint of rage in his stare, and a tenderness he doesn’t really know how to cultivate. When his eye is damaged in Iraq, he is sent back home to complete his duty in some other capacity. He is fine with being taken out of action, but seems unwilling or unable to adapt to any sort of ordinary life. As “The Hurt Locker” pointed out earlier this year, most soldiers feel a drug-like addiction to the danger and desperation to survive that the front lines can provide. He has a girlfriend (Jena Malone), but he knows that he is her thing on the side, and she’ll likely marry her main boyfriend.

Will is enlisted by Capt. Tony Stone (an equally excellent Woody Harrelson) to be a Messenger for the army. It will be their job to knock on doors, and inform people that their loved ones have been killed in action. That’s one of those jobs you never see yourself doing until you’re required to do it.

There are rules to informing the bereaved. There is certain language you must use. And when they inevitably ask you for comfort, or offer to fight you, it’s your job to remain cool, and walk away. A high-strung solider like will can’t take too much confrontation before he’s tempted to fight back.

Will becomes fascinated with the people they inform, in particular, with a widow named Olivia (Samantha Morton). He seems to take an almost scientific interest in the way real people grieve, and, by extension, the way war really affect people. He begins to spend time with Olivia, against the advice of his superiors, and even begins to feel something for her again.

This film is not a ponderous melodrama about grief; the way I’m describing it, I think, makes it seem more ham-handed than it is. “The Messenger” is subtle and honest about emotional brutality, and the intentional disconnect we sometimes construct in order not to have to grieve. It is not a topical political anti-war film, it is a gentle simmer of unspoken pain.

I called “The Hurt Locker” one of the best films of 2009. “The Messenger” is its perfect companion piece.

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Published in: on February 10, 2010 at 6:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

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