The Messenger (2009)


(director/writer: Oren Moverman; screenwriter: Alessandro Camon; cinematographer: Bobby Bukowski; editor: Alexander Hall; music: Nathan Larson; cast: Ben Foster (Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery), Woody Harrelson (Capt. Tony Stone), Samantha Morton (Olivia Pitterson), Jena Malone (Kelly), Steve Buscemi (Dale Martin), Yaya DaCosta (Monica Washington), Portia (Mrs. Burrell), Jahmir Duran-Abreau (Matt Pitterson); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Mark Gordon/Lawrence Inglee/ Zach Miller; Oscillscope Laboratories; 2009)

“Gripping but uneven home front war drama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

First-time director Oren Moverman (“I’m Not There”-cowriter), a combat paratrooper veteran of the Israeli Army, cowrites this gripping but uneven home front war drama with Alessandro Camon. It almost throws away the good work it did in capturing with feeling the psychological toll the Iraqi War has on the home front for those who serve, as the filmmaker can’t decide if he wants to make this an indie type of character-driven story or to just pound out his message that there’s a lack of communication in this country because of all the recent brutal wars. It was filmed in and around Fort Dix, New Jersey, giving it an authentic military type of setting.

The Messenger focuses on the delivering to the next of kin by two stone-faced soldiers from Fort Dix, Capt. Tony Stone and Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), to those in the surrounding area that their loved one was killed-in-action, and highlights the reactions both of the receiver and deliverer of the tragic news. The soldiers must within 24 hours of a soldier’s death locate the next of kin and deliver the following minimum facts: when, where and how the soldier died, and not much else. There’s no tears, no touching, no empathy and no offer of help. Will is a quiet decorated hero wounded from an IED explosion in Iraq, where he received shrapnel in the leg and face and the same explosion killed a buddy from his unit. Suffering without help from post-traumatic stress (alone in his tiny apartment he punches holes in the wall) and coming home recently to find his ex-girlfriend Kelly (Jena Malone), from childhood, is about to marry someone else, he’s now a mental wreck and bitter that he’s assigned by his commander to the Casualty Notification Office even though he’s a short-timer (only three months to go in the service) and had no training in such work. Will is under the tutelage of the officious, by-the-book, Army lifer, Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson ), a veteran of the Persian Gulf War who did not experience combat and is hiding a vulnerability to his inner being while being gabby, a skirt-chaser and a recovering alcoholic who believes the Army saved his life by giving him this second chance to serve.

The sometime hysterical reactions from those receiving the bad news include one dad (Steve Buscemi) in a rage spitting on Will after he delivers the KIA message and then yelling at him: “Why aren’t you dead?”; a sobbing mom slapping Tony; shocking a bitter father not knowing that his live-at-home daughter has married “that greaseball” until they both hear the KIA report and both then grieve his death; and an understanding mother of a black child, Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton), who tells the soldiers she realizes how hard it is for them to do this duty and serenely accepts the news.

In a confusing aside to the serious side of the notification program, Will, still working out his problems, going against Army regulations to fall for the grieving Olivia and in a cautious romance the two sensitively try to communicate and find a way to reach other.

The mission, despite its obvious drawbacks, surprisingly allows Will to deal with his own demons, as he tries to overcome the guilt that he lived while his pal died and he also now takes responsibility for the part he played in his pal’s death.

When not going out on those overly dramatic notification assignments, the movie mainly focuses on how the two lonely soldiers, dressed in civies, spend their off hours. These scenes include heart-to-heart chats about their distorted past and going on wild benders, with some of these scenes seemingly over written though strongly acted by the two male leads. The narrative just couldn’t find a place for both of the film’s story lines to feel right–with the impactful one showing the emotionally repressed soldiers who are not allowed to communicate real human emotions at the doorsteps of those who lost loved ones and the less than impactful unconvincing soap opera love story, that can’t decide if it wants to carry on the message of lack of communication or be a character-driven melodrama.

The film’s overall purpose was to show how difficult it is to communicate real feelings when interacting with either strangers or intimates, supposedly because it’s so difficult to do when one is feeling so empty or miserable inside. It suggests, at least to me, that the old way of sending a telegram upon a war-related death, as during the Vietnam War, might serve the same purpose and save a lot of unnecessary strain. In other words, we have learned so little how to communicate with each other from all the recent wars, which doesn’t bode well for the future of the country.