By Dennis Hartley
The bad news bearers: Harrelson and Foster in The Messenger
Well, it took long enough. Someone has finally made a film that gets the harrowing national nightmare of the Iraq/Afghanistan wars right. Infused with sharp writing, smart and unobtrusive direction and compelling performances, The Messenger is one of those insightful observations of the human condition that quietly sneaks up and really gets inside you, staying with you long after the credits roll. This is easily one of the best films I have seen this year (and one of the few with real substance). First-time director Owen Moverman and co-writer Alessandro Camon not only bring the war(s) home, but they then proceed to march up your driveway and deposit in on your doorstep. Quite literally.
“The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your (son, daughter, husband, wife) (died/was killed in action) in (country/state) on (date). The Secretary extends his deepest sympathy to you and your family in your tragic loss.”
Those are words that no one ever wants to hear, and I can’t imagine any job in the world that could possibly be any worse than being the person assigned to deliver that message. “There’s no such thing as a satisfied customer,” deadpans Casualty Notification Officer Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) to his new apprentice, Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), who is emotionally shattered by his virgin encounter with bereaved “NOK”.
Sgt. Montgomery is a decorated, recently returned Iraq War vet whose enlistment is almost up. Although he accepts this one last thankless assignment with the stoic obedience expected from a professional soldier, he appears to privately suffer from PTSD; a condition that makes an odd bedfellow with his new responsibilities. Stone is a hardass, a cynical careerist who carries a fair share of personal baggage himself. When he bluntly asks Montgomery if he is “a head case” right after meeting him, you suspect that this may be a case of “it takes one to know one”. Stone (and Harrelson’s portrayal) is reminiscent of SM1 “Bad Ass” Buddusky, Jack Nicholson’s character in The Last Detail.
In fact, there is a lot about this film that reminds me of those episodic, naturalistic character studies that directors like Hal Ashby and Bob Rafaelson used to turn out back in the 70s; giving their actors plenty of room to breathe and inhabit their characters in a very real and believable manner. A subplot involving a relationship between Montgomery and a recently widowed Army wife (Samantha Morton) strongly recalled one of my all-time favorite sleepers from that particular era and style of filmmaking, Mark Rydell’s Cinderella Liberty (worth seeking out, if you have never seen it, BTW).
Although the filmmakers hold back from making any overt political statements, the notification scenes in the film say it all-we continue to ship scores of young American men and women overseas whole of limb and spirit, and return many of them home sans either or both (or in a box)…and for what justifiable reason, exactly? And as heartbreaking, gut-wrenching and hard to watch as these scenes are-I am sure they pale in comparison to the agony of those families and loved ones who have answered the door and received that news for real. In fact, I’ll take this one step further. I challenge anyone out there who feels we “need” to dig ourselves in deeper into our present Middle East quagmire to watch this film, reassess their justifications, and get back to me. Go. I’ll wait