Friday, February 19, 2010

Film Review - The Messenger

Film #24 of 2010 - The Messenger
The war film genre has been prevalent since film began, with a landmark film like D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in 1915, to the recent film, The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow. What can set a film in this genre apart from traditional “combat films” is exploring the war experience from another angle, which The Messenger does, with good results.

The Messenger is the first film directed by writer Oren Moverman, and tells the story of two men whose assignment is to notify the next of kin of recently deceased soldiers. Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) is a career army man who is a veteran at notification duty, and is asked to train newbie Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), who has three months left on his tour after getting seriously hurt during combat. Both men seem to have will to do this wrenching duty, and Will in particular is able to use his steely demeanor as a defensive mechanism, though both men find themselves suffering in their personal lives, both with their health (not being able to sleep, drinking) and socially. When the two men notify a newly widowed mother, Olivia (Samantha Morton), Will finds himself drawn to her stoicism and vulnerability and begins to see more of her, all the while, battling his own demons and dealing with his mixed feelings about engaging in a friendship with Tony, who has his own set of problems.

The most accolades The Messenger has received has been about its acting performances, notably that of Woody Harrelson. Certainly, all of the primary actors in the film were very good, especially Harrelson, though I think that Foster certainly could have deserved a nomination for his portrayal, which started out almost annoyingly defensive and steel-jawed and became less caricature and more multi-layered. In addition to the fine acting, I think there is a lot to be said for what turned out to be a really well written script. The main characters were well fleshed out, and the multiple layers I alluded to earlier unfolded in a non-pedestrian way; there weren’t any expositional reveals that insult the audience’s intelligence. I loved that Tony and Will were both really flawed people, recognized that they were flawed, but still were able to reach out to one other, in a non-Lifetime movie kind of way. Looking at an example of Moverman’s past writing work, the Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There, I totally get how he was able to create a story that was straightforward and coherent, but still slightly abstract; a truly talented feat.

Though I am normally not drawn to the war film genre, I do find films that go outside of the regular John Wayne-cigar chewing-combat fare to be intriguing when they are done well. William Wyler’s 1946 classic The Best Years of Our Lives was daring for its time, not focusing on the war, but rather, examining the aftermath of the war on its soldiers and the awkwardness and displacement they feel when they rejoin their families. Even Stanley Kubrick’s films Full Metal Jacket (1987) and 1957’s Paths of Glory that include combat examine the psychological effects of war more than focusing on the action and anti-war sentiments themselves. The Messenger falls into this subcategory of the genre that tells an aspect of the story that transcends conventional terms and, because the film is credible and well done, gives the audience something more to think about than jingoism or traditional mores.

3.5 stars out of 5

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