The Messenger understands a fundamental truth of warfare: It always has two fronts, and many of the most important battles are fought without weapons and explosions. The picture takes place during the Iraq War, but the conflict it depicts is not between men with guns, or governments with agendas. First-time director Oren Moverman, a veteran screenwriter who wrote this one with Alessandro Camon, looks beyond the headlines in his depiction of the conflict and finds its core not in deserts thousands of miles away, but in the quiet streets and quaint living rooms that dot the American home front.
His protagonists have been given what’s deemed by many to be the worst job in the U.S. Army. Staff sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) and Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) are casualty notification officers, charged with reporting deaths overseas to next of kin. They’re the men every military family member doesn’t want to see, the nameless figures that pull up in a flash, report the worst of news and are gone. It’s a grim duty, and it’s one that has to this point been largely ignored by popular depictions of American military life.
Moverman understands the deep, powerful struggle that must accompany such constant grappling with death. He and Camon create characters with disparate methods for handling their job — Stone keeps his distance, Montgomery gets involved with a widow (Samantha Morton) and her stepson. What the men share, and what the filmmaker so powerfully evokes, is a profound helplessness, a sense of total inadequacy born out of the realization that there’s nothing they can do to prevent their endless round of tragic house calls. Stone disguises it with a blustery, comical demeanor and Montgomery broods in silence, but it’s there and over the course of the picture it slowly eats away at whatever shred of dignity they’ve retained.
The employment of a vérité approach spurred by the liberal use of handheld cameras lets the actors inhabit their characters with a rare totality of being. By frequently bringing things in close, emphasizing their stiff physicality, relying on periodic improvisation and valuing the lost art of the monologue, the filmmaker transforms the picture from an observational portrait into a work that truly lives and breathes alongside Montgomery and Stone. Moverman emphasizes their development over the advancement of a superficial plot. He trusts his terrific lead actors to imbue both the dialogue heavy scenes and the quieter moments with the fullness necessary to sustain audience interest. Harrelson, Foster and Morton reward his gamble.
Much has been written about the current conflict’s unsuitability as a film subject. Audiences, it’s said, want escapism from cinema and nothing more. The Messenger, which so successfully harkens back to a very different era of empathetic character driven storytelling, ought to challenge that thesis.
To Montgomery, Stone and their ilk politics don’t matter. Men and women live and die by the metaphoric sword somewhere else. In many respects, they face the most challenging burden of all. Left to sit and wait for bad news from abroad, there’s little to do but stew in their own guilt and helplessness, hoping like hell to make the best of a bad situation they can’t control. Army protocol, which teaches them to keep everything to themselves and avoid reaching out as humans to the fathers, mothers, sons and daughters they contact, only makes things worse.
However, The Messenger is more than the downbeat story of miserable people living miserable lives. In the deep friendships that form over the course of the picture, in the union of three hearts brought together by shared pain, it serves as a genuinely hopeful account of the small personal victories that can happen in a very different sort of combat: That between the heart and what Shakespeare called “the grief that does not speak.”
The Upside: The acting and directing are terrific; the screenplay is intelligent and deeply moving.
The Downside: Occasional slowness. That’s about it.
On the Side: Woody Harrelson has said in multiple interviews that the process of making this movie gave him a deeper appreciation of the sacrifices soldiers make than he’d ever had before.