The Messenger

by | May 31st, 2010 | 1:21PM | Filed under: DVD Reviews, Movies

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.

The Messenger is available for rental at redbox.

5 Responses to “The Messenger

    • Currently 4/5 Stars
    Posted on June 1, 2010 at 10:17 am

    I could not understand how a soldier pushing 50 could still be in the Army at the rank of Captain, unless I missed the explanation. Even though Harrelson’s 48, he could have been passed off as a late-fifties Viet Vet, if he upped at 17 or 18. That would also explain his rank at that age, having come up from an enlistee. I agree, or maybe not “agree,” but felt that Stone was an enigma. Now I’m going to have to go rent it and watch it again to see if I just missed some major plot development. Something definately happened to Stone and Harrelson wore it well. I think someone older, say Tommy Lee Jones or Jeff Bridges, would have been a better choice. That would have made believable that Stone had Vietnam experience so that the story, such as it is, would make better sense. He also should have been a Major, at least, one his way out for being passed over too many times. Even though he’s the best character in the movie, his age and rank made the story too unrealistic for me to suspend disbelief and kinda ruined it for me. Three and 1/2 stars.

  1. Locke Peterseim
    Locke Peterseim
    Posted on June 1, 2010 at 11:13 am

    Dan, Stone (Harrelson’s character) served in the Gulf War (’90), not Vietnam, so the implication would be he’s in his early ’40s.

  2. Dan
    Posted on June 2, 2010 at 7:53 am

    Oh, I did miss a big plot development. Don’t think of the 1st Gulf war as having a lot of PTSD sufferers, but I’m sure there are some, Stone being one. I’m still stopping by the Red Box for a weekend review because I enjoyed Harrelson’s performance so. Thanx.

    • Currently 1/5 Stars
    Posted on June 3, 2010 at 12:00 am

    Harrelson did have a great performance but the story progressed way too slow, and the emotional scenes seemed too fake. My wife and I stopped the movie about 3/4 of the way through and returned it. It’s the first movie rental we’ve aborted in at least 5 years.

  3. pamela
    Posted on December 14, 2010 at 6:16 am

    yes my husband was in the gulf war and he has PTSD he was blown up and died 2 time thank god they was able to bring him back to us he saw his best friend die over there so yea i’m sure there is more than a few of them that suffers PTSD but for some reason no one talks about it