The Messenger (2009) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Messenger (2009)

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Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, barely out of the emergency room, is reassigned to a "sacred" duty - informing the next of kin of the deaths of those in the service.  SSgt. Montgomery is mentored by Captain Tony Stone, a brash soldier with rigid protocol for delivering the news, and starts to wonder if there's a better way.  Oren Moverman directs The Messenger, from a screenplay written by Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman, and stars Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, and Jena Malone.

Interrupting himself during one of his many macho rants, Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) loudly exclaims how the news should run footage of every body lost to America's wars.  In the context of The Messenger, he's talking about the dead and wounded.  Taken within the larger empathetic focus of Oren Moverman's film, Capt. Stone's talking about the pain of the survivors - not just the friends and family left behind.  Capt. Stone knows better than anyone the importance of showing respect to those bodies, but doesn't have a full grasp on what it means for the traumatized people he gives the worst news of their lives to.

Enter SSgt. Will Montgomery, played by Ben Foster in one of those performances that hooked my heart in 2009 and still bleeds fresh nearly a decade later.  Moverman and cowriter Alessandro Camon wrote the conventionally "juicy" bits of storytelling for Harrelson's Capt. Stone, but it's Foster's quietly tumultuous empathy that gives The Messenger its lasting affect.  In scene after scene, Moverman's camera will sit - barely stirring - and just watches SSgt. Montgomery trying to process the role he's been given.  The question that seems to be flickering through his mind with every flinch, barely held back tear, or as his rage builds to near breaking points is, "How?"

Ben Foster leads The Messenger with his greatest performance, combining unsteady emotion and sense of duty with his own need for relief.

How can Capt. Stone be so rigid and closed off to the surviving loved ones?  How can SSgt. Montgomery withhold his own need for reassurance and love with those suffering within arm's reach?  The question reaches its threshold in one of The Messenger's most potent audiovisual moments.  With just a handful of cuts, SSgt. Montgomery and Capt. Stone go to notify the father of a killed soldier but he doesn't speak English.  In the cramped hall, both Capt. Stone's words and the translators echo uselessly against one another soon joined by the man's tormented wailing.  I hear and see the rigid cold of Capt. Stone's approach, with neither the Capt. nor the translator reaching out, and SSgt. Montgomery looking like he wants nothing more than to break through their adherence to procedure to comfort the man as he experiences a pain beyond language.

Editor Alexander Hall barely cuts up the notification scenes, and it's not until the last that there are more than single-digit cuts.  The affect is sometimes unbearable, but if SSgt. Montgomery and Capt. Stone aren't able to blink away from their duty no one in the audience should either.  It's a perfect example of form and function meeting in tight closeup, using handcam visuals to let some of the anxiety out through the frame that neither man is permitted.  It also means putting a tremendous strain on the performers, many of which are onscreen just long enough to act out the worst days of their character's lives, while leaving without any catharsis for themselves.

The Messenger would be great if it was just about Capt. Stone and SSgt. Montgomery, but there are two additional - and important - roles performed by the always excellent Jena Malone and Samantha Morton.  Both respond differently to the expectations placed on women waiting at home for their loved ones fighting overseas.  Malone's is compelling in her limited screentime with her dyed black hair and red dress showing how she wants to be a good wife for some man, but also loves her freedom too much to completely settle down.

Morton, however, is absolutely stunning and receives the heftiest doses of Moverman's uncut gaze.  She is Olivia Pitterson, recently widowed as SSgt. Montgomery and Capt. Stone report, and fumbles through her words as though she's half-remembering a list of things she's "supposed" to say.  Her scenes with Foster are magnetic, him trying not to show the care visually that she's struggling with verbally, and contains one scene of such dramatic perfection that any cut would ruin it.  So Overman doesn't, eight immaculate minutes of Olivia and SSgt. Montgomery's physical flirtation spirals into their grief in one unbroken take, and it ends with the kind of silent regard that lesser films might roll the credits on.

Samantha Morton and Ben Foster have a complicated emotional flirtation rooted in hope and despair, refusing to play out like we might hope it would

The show must go on to complete the inversion of the grizzled veteran and hapless rookie that Overman and Camon began.  Capt. Stone acts tough, but hasn't seen combat and can only guess at the kind of horror SSgt. Montgomery's gone through.  In a great ambiguous moment cinema's capable of, and what likely got Harrelson so many acting nominations, Capt. Stone loses himself to the pain he's been carrying around and cries.  Why he cries likely has as much solid reasoning in my mind as it does yours.  I think his big dream, being a hero in war, reveals itself as the fabrication of an immature mind and all the toughness he used to keep himself together during notifications crumbles away in the face of SSgt. Montgomery's real and forever present trauma.

The Messenger stands alongside Jesus' Sermon on the Mount as a great humanist lesson that you don't need religion to appreciate.  Even before his breakdown, that's something Capt. Stone grasps when he tells SSgt. Montgomery, "We're there for standard notification. Not God, not Heaven."  That said, "standard" shouldn't exclude empathy, and as we see time and again that's what's been missing from Capt. Stone's message from the beginning.  Foster's scarred, trembling, and sharp expressions show the path to caring isn't easy, but that's what changes his role of bearing witness to the true heroism of SSgt. Montgomery - refusing to simply watch and relay, instead reaching out to feel and see humans in their pain.

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The Messenger (2009)

Directed by Oren Moverman.
Screenplay written by Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman.
Starring Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, and Jena Malone.

Posted by Andrew

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