Messenger, The

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Oren Moverman, the Israeli born filmmaker, better known until now as a screenwriter ("I'm Not There," "Married Life"), makes a promising feature directing debut with "The Messenger," a grim but not depressing tale of a little-known, little-depicted aspect of the Iraq war (and any other war), how to inform family and relatives of the deaths of their loved ones in combat.

 
Offering a new perspective on the Iraq War, "The Messenger," co-penned by Moverman and Alessandro Camon, centers on Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), a U.S. Army officer who has just returned home from a tour in Iraq and is assigned to the service of the Army’s Casualty Notification (ACN). To accomplish his tough goal of bearing the bad news to the loved ones of soldiers who had died in battle, Will is partnered with fellow officer Anthony Stone (Woody Harrelson). Naturally, their unusual task is burdensome and takes heavy emotional toll on each one of them.
 
With the exception of "The Hurt Locker," most Iraq war movies have not fared well with the critics or the lay public, and "The Messenger" might face the risk of being unfairly labeled as "too small," "too intimate," "too downbeat" character study, set against a troubled war and a surrounding climate of opinion that is at best divisive.
 
Nothing is farther from the truth. The scenario, which won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and other kudos, is a balancing act of serious, grave issues with natural, instinctive humor. Remarkably, "The Messenger" is not just a moving, humanistic portrait of grief, friendship and survival, but also infused with humor and a rather positive perspective. Indeed, Moverman succeeds in turning this timely and poignant saga into a story of hope and resilience.
 
I anticipate debate as to whether or not Woody Harrelson's performance is a lead or supporting one; I think the latter. No matter. Suffice is to say that Ben Foster, usually seen in secondary (and villainous) parts and the always reliable Harrelson are superb. I have reservations about the work of Samantha Morton here, but they are minor complaints.
 
At first sight, Will and Stone come across as an unlikely pairing of opposite types, based on different age, background, personality, and approach to their task. Will is a decorated Iraq war hero who is sent back to the U.S. with a few months left of service. His commander assigns him to the task force in charge of informing the relatives of soldiers’ deaths within short period of time (often 24 hours since the event). In contrast, Will’s superior officer Stone is older, more experienced, more detached and more rigid—a "by-the-book" guy.
 
Upon returns from Iraq, Will is warmly met by his long-time girl Kelly (Jena Malone), only to find out hours later that, while he was gone, she had became engaged to another man. Further complicating his readjustment to civilian life is the undesirable assignment to function as a member of the Casualty Notification team. "The Messenger" depicts how Will attempts to fulfill his unbearable mission, while seeking to find personal comfort and healing back on the home front. 
 
After moving into a modest apartment, Will tries to maintain an agreeable work routine with Stone. There are some basic rules of how to notify NOK (next of kin) the dreadful news, the kinds of which no one likes to hear. "It's a peculiar job," says Stone, "There's no such thing as a satisfied customer."  Among the ground rules are avoiding physical contact, routing one's way (no GPS), knocking rather than using the ding bells, parking at a distance from the house, and above all, avoidance of any social or intimate relationships with the families of the deceased. 
Sure enough, Will becomes intrigued with a young woman and single mother, Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton), to whom he has just delivered the news of her husband's death. Defying Stone's rules, he embarks on a strange friendship with her, which bears strong influence over his work and companionship with Stone, who initially holds that she had been cheating on her husband.
 
Olivia's seemingly vague and rather cool acceptance of the news contrasts with the behavior Will observes when he begins following her, noting the way she dresses down Army recruiters, or prepares the suit bag that contains the burial clothes of her husband. Predictably, Will's attraction to her begins to dissolve the tough façade and emotional detachment recommended for doing the job effectively and efficiently.
 
What saves the movie from being dull and repetitious is that each of the assignments represents a different type of encounter, calling for different kinds of skills and resulting in different kinds of reaction. The first time, while informing a young pregnant woman, Stone does all the talking, and after the girl's harrowing explosion, the two men sit in their car. In another assignment, they encounter a more violent response from Mr. Martin (Steve Buscemi).
 
On duty scenes are alternated with off-duty ones, in which Stone and Will try to relax, let the steam off and in the process get to know each other better. We learn that Stone is a recovered alcoholic, but still a womanizer, proud of his courting and scoring. It's funny to hear Stone say, upon meeting a sexy female bartender, "I'd like to strap her on and wear her like a government issued gas mask," and the nonchalant way that Harrelson delivers this line makes it all the more charming and authentic.
 
"The Messenger" is not the first Hollywood to deal with this particular issue. Back in the 1940s, Mickey Rooney starred in "The Human Comedy," based on William Saroyan's Oscar-winning screenplay as Homer Macauley, a small-town California boy who delivers heartbreaking telegrams during the war, including one to his own family. And more recently, Spielberg's brilliant WWII "Saving Private Ryan" also depicted the burden of informing next of kin of the terrible news. However, Moverman's film is the first one to place it center stage and to apply it to the current wars.
 
Aiming to illuminate the inner lives of these outwardly steely heroes, "The Messenger" could have become in the hands of another director an unbearably depressing and repetitious film. However, as co-scribe and helmer, Moverman humanizes his characters by showing their inner fragility and vulnerability, while struggling to do their impossible "job" with compassion yet effectiveness and maintaining their honor and dignity.
 
Cast
 
Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery – Ben Foster
Capt. Tony Stone – Woody Harrelson
Olivia Pitterson – Samantha Morton
Kelly – Jena Malone
Dale Martin – Steve Buscemi
Col. Stuart Dorsett – Eamonn Walker
Credits
 
An Omnilab Media Group presentation in association with Sherezade Film Development Co. and BZ Entertainment of a Mark Gordon Co. /Good Worldwide production.
Produced by Gordon, Lawrence Inglee, Zach Miller.
Executive producers, Ben Goldhirsh, Christopher Mapp, Matthew Street, David Whealy, Glenn Stuart, Steffen Aumueller, Claus Clausen, Bryan Zuriff, Shaun Redick.
Directed by Oren Moverman.
Screenplay, Moverman, Alessandro Camon.
Camera, Bobby Bukowski.
Editor, Alex Hall.
Music, Nathan Larson; music supervisor, Tracy McKnight.
Production designer, Stephen Beatrice.
Costume designer, Catherine George.
Sound (Dolby), Ken Ishii.
Casting, Laura Rosenthal, Ali Farrell.
 
Running Time: 112 Minutes