The Messenger‘s deceptively quiet, narrow focus is on stateside soldiers whose grim duty it is to notify the next of kin when a service man or woman has died. But like all good films, this one ends up encompassing more than the task it examines—it’s about people of all walks paying the cost of war, each in their own way.
This Memorial Day, we at redblog thank all who’ve served or are serving in the armed forces and their families, and extend our deepest gratitude to those men and women who gave the last full measure of devotion in defense of their country.
The Messenger is not a “war movie” in the conventional sense—set far from any front or military zone, no shots are fired and even the film’s sole fight scene occurs off-screen. And yet in many ways it’s the most powerful of war movies because it looks at combat’s other cost, too often hidden behind platitudes about heroism, bravery, sacrifice: Those holes left in families and loved ones’ lives when their brother/son/father/sister/daughter/mother stationed on the other side of the world suddenly ceases to exist.
Ben Foster is Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery, recently returned from Iraq and undergoing rehabilitation for injuries received there. Numb with post-traumatic stress he’d never admit to having, Montgomery is assigned to notification duty alongside Cpt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson)–together they go to homes of fallen soldiers to inform families of their loved one’s death. Stone is a notification service veteran who clings to its rituals of respect and rules of restraint as much out of need to keep himself (a recovering alcoholic) focused and in line than anything else.
In following his and the Army’s procedures, Stone goes out of his way to make every visit practiced, professional, and safely standardized to protect both the families and the notification team. But each home Montgomery and he visit is different—not just in their social-economic and racial variety, but more importantly in the heart-wrenching myriad of ways people react to such devastating news. Some with screaming denials or sobbing collapses, some with numb stares, some with anger, others with a disarming acceptance. And some shifting from one reaction to another in moments.
Director and co-writer Oren Moverman could easily have made a broad, spoon-fed film about PTS, grief, and duty and then called it a day—and all those themes are certainly present in The Messenger. But what makes the film so powerful (despite its deliberate lack of “Big Scenes” or “War Flashbacks”) is Moverman’s focus on human beings. Not soldiers, not grieving families, not characters in a soap opera, but regular human beings with all their staggeringly complex emotions and behaviors—and their flaws. No one in The Messenger behaves a certain way because “that’s how characters in dramas act” or because it helps set up the plot. Instead of herding them into what makes for a “good story,” Moverman lets his film follow these people almost from a documentary like distance.
Fresh out of the war zone, working to rehab his injuries, and trying to avoid thinking about his ex-girlfriend’s impending marriage to another man, Montgomery goes against every warning from Stone and becomes emotionally involved with a new war widow (the fantastically subdued Samantha Morton). Again, a lesser director and a lesser film would have taken that plot development and run it into the melodramatic ground, but Montgomery’s relationship with the young woman is allowed to develop naturally and realistically—two damaged, guarded people who need each other. Nor is that relationship and all it’s moral and ethical baggage even the film’s dramatic core—as in real life, it’s only a part of the emotional landscape real human being navigate daily.
All this works because Moverman lets Foster, Harrelson and Morton work slowly into their characters, etching out nuances with quiet, considered moments instead of big speeches. All three actors are terrific—Foster’s stoic, tightly wound Montgomery finds in notification duty a way into his own pain, and Morton’s sad and numb Olivia is grasping for something to help her deal with both her loss and the reality of raising her young son.
But Harrelson deservedly nabbed an Oscar nomination for his supporting work in The Messenger because Stone is the most fascinatingly complex and contradictory of the three. His Gulf War experience didn’t fulfill his macho expectations–unlike Montgomery, Stone’s scars are not from combat. Stone is no bullying Great Santini caricature–instead he tucks his frustrations and wavering self worth behind career-Army regulations, and masks his loneliness with a teasing, bawdy jocularity that too often betrays his desperate need for friendship.
The Messenger doesn’t wave banners, make speeches, or deliver big, inspiring messages. Instead it draws you in and keeps you captivated without serving ideas and emotions up on a platter for entertainment purposes. In doing so, it asks us to remember not just those who make the ultimate sacrifice and come home in red-white-and-blue-draped coffins, but everyone around them who have to continue living—faults and all—after “Taps” has been played and the flags have been carefully folded and handed over.