The Messenger

2010-04-19 15:21
The Messenger

What it's about:

Decorated war hero Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is back in the US recovering  from an injury sustained in Iraq. With just three months left to his deployment, the Army partners him up with Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) whose job it is to personally inform the next of kin of soldiers who have died in Iraq. Sgt Montgomery breaks the rules of the job by becoming involved with the widow of a fallen soldier.

What we thought:

The Messenger is the Iraq war movie that packs the kind of emotional punch that controversial Oscar-winner The Hurt Locker did not, or rather chose to cloak under a giant wave of agonizing tension. It's a war movie that takes place thousands of miles away from war zone itself, but the scars of what happens "over there" marks every character we meet – the soldiers, the devastated families, even the curious bystanders who witness two solemn, uniformed soldiers approach a civilian, suburban home with an American flag in the front yard and are left to assume the worst.

To be a CNO (Casualty Notifcation Officer) is a grim, specialized position that, like any military operation, comes with a long list of unbreakable rules: Avoid physical contact with the NOK (next of kin), do not console the NOK, do not speak with anyone other than the specified NOK, do not park directly in front of the NOK's home, deliver the news and leave. Also, the CNOs are working against the clock with CNN and Fox News always on the verge of breaking the news before families are informed. It's a tough task, as Sgt Montgomery, an intensely introverted soldier, discovers. Used to direct, physical combat in Iraq, the challenge of coming face to face with families at the brink of experiencing the greatest tragedy of their lives forces Montgomery to confront a side of himself that years in the armed forces has almost cancelled out.

Under the tutelage of Stone, Montgomery learns the honour and responsibility bound to his unique task and, perhaps for the first time, how the events that occur in Iraq affects the lives of the people left behind. On their first notification, the immense outrage and grief felt by the mother and pregnant fiancée of a murdered soldier gives way to a shocking outburst. It is an encounter that shakes the firm foundations Montgomery had proudly built for himself, and sets up the intensely emotional road that lies before him.

The performances are something of a marvel. Harrelson, nominated for an Academy Award for this role, is benefitting from something of a purple period, after stand-out performances in Zombieland, No Country for Old Men and 2012. It's not that he is particularly unrecognisable as the sombre Stone, it's that the role of mentor, a drunk, and dysfunctional man is something so easily associated with him, this just happens to be the perfect culmination of all those personas. Ben Foster has the harder job to do, playing it cool and calculated until the walls around him start to disintegrate. His scenes with the recently widowed Olivia (played by Samantha Morton) are filmed with a searing honesty that are almost painful to watch. It's a rare treat to watch three actors on the same wavelength, traversing the rocky path of grief, loneliness, despair and redemption with this level of honesty and fearlessness.

The film also plays host to a memorable cameo from Steve Buscemi as the father of a 20-year-old soldier who is killed. Like many of the NOK we encounter throughout the movie, his reaction to this news is both appalling and forgivable, and gives a raw look into the hearts of the countless people who have lost loved ones in the name of patriotism.

Writer and first-time director Oren Moverman takes an unflappable approach to telling this story, with many sustained shots that linger to the point of voyeurism. These private, devastating moments show a face of the war that the news media just isn’t able to. Prepare for an awakening.

A gripping Iraq war drama that takes packs emotional punch even though it takes place thousands of miles away from the front lines.

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.