Saturday 9 April 2022

Movie Review: The Messenger (2009)

A drama about war's ravages on the homefront, The Messenger is a study of two characters consigned to the difficult margins of conflict.

Decorated US Army staff sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) was wounded in the Iraq War while heroically saving the lives of other soldiers. Now back in the US with three months to go before the end of his service, he is assigned to partner Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) on casualty notification duty.

Will is tending to eye and leg injuries, and emotionally still attached to ex-girlfriend Kelly (Jena Malone), although she is now with another man. The jaded and older Tony, a recovering alcoholic, teaches him the strict script-based rules of informing next-of-kin that their loved one has died on duty. Will gets to grips with the job and slowly forms a connection with newly-widowed Olivia (Samantha Morton) after notifying her of her husband's death.

Soldiers conveying a catastrophic message to family members are backdrops in many war movies. Here director Oren Moverman and co-writer Alessandro Camon place the notifiers front and centre in a subdued story of losses lapping up on the shores of army homes. It's a perspective worth exploring: delivering the worst possible news and repeatedly witnessing real-time emotional breakdowns takes an immense toll.

Moverman derives strength from the hold-your-breath nature of the doorway scenes. These are familiar, similar but different, unpredictable, and never short of impact. The suitably named Tony Stone has developed grim-faced stoicism in the face of grief, but inside he is seething from never having experienced combat (he was deployed but not needed in Desert Storm), his military career reduced to a bearer of bad news. The lure of the bottle is never far.

Will is younger, fresh from battlefield horrors, and more willing to interpret rules according to the situation. The two men alternate between clashing and bonding, their backstories and emotional traumas emerging through evening conversations. Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster invest heartily in the roles and complement each other, but are also limited by relatively stock soldier cliches. Drunken man-child hijinks become an easy approximation of friendship.

More interesting is Will's slowly evolving relationship with Olivia. Their bond strengthens over a quite magnificent eight minute single-take scene in her kitchen, first impressions yielding to genuine understanding of hidden hurt and war's often unseen domestic impact. With understated dignity, The Messenger steps inside a world of multifaceted pain.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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