The Messenger effectively brings the Iraq War home
The Messenger might be the most harrowing Iraq War movie yet, and it doesn't even leave the States. Army Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) has just returned from Iraq, scarred and limping and more than a little shaken up by his last tour, when he walks right into a particularly grim assignment: notifying the next of kin of soldiers killed in action. As Montgomery and his new mentor, Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), walk up to a series of suburban front doors, director Oren Moverman switches to hand-held camerawork like a combat photographer, and in long, single-shot takes catches the soldiers breaking the worst news possible. There's emotional blood all over the walls.
Later, while gulping beers in a bar, the usually sardonic Stone opines that the funeral of each and every dead American veteran should be televised. And that's sort of what Moverman, who co-wrote the script with Alessandro Camon, is trying to do: bring home the loss behind each American casualty statistic, magnified by the grieving family members left behind and filtered through the guilt of the men who make it back alive. The Messenger achieves that goal extraordinarily well, though its mission isn't an unqualified success.
Moverman co-wrote the screenplays for Todd Haynes' 2007 Dylan biopic I'm Not There and the 1999 adaptation of Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, and his directorial debut especially recalls the elliptical realism of the latter. You watch Kelly (Jena Malone) give Montgomery a hero's welcome, including a homecoming fuck, before you understand how much has changed between them. The way Montgomery places a napkin over his drink in a bar to block sand that isn't there and the blaring hard rock he blasts on his car stereo telegraph the degree to which he's been affected by his experiences every bit as much as his perma-scoff and volatile outbursts. Shot on location in New Jersey, The Messenger looks like America, not Canada filling in for it. When Montgomery and Stone pull up to a house, the person who would live there answers the door. Indeed, the soldiers' own dim, generic off-base housing both reflects their troubled state and, it's easy to imagine, enhances it.
Having made a modest name for himself in squirrelly character roles, Foster makes a hard left on the road to becoming the next David Patrick Kelly by delivering a performance that's bottled-up and yet exquisitely expressive. Not only does he manage to convey the war of emotions behind Montgomery's parade-ground stare and ever-present shades, he allows the character's cracks to pop open when he finds himself drawn to Olivia (a perfectly cast and absolutely brilliant Samantha Morton), a mom whom he had to inform that she's a widow. Once Montgomery ends up alone with Olivia at last, Moverman lets the camera roll and roll for a different sort of one-take scene, showcasing all the subtle back and forth of these two wounded, searching people's attraction and resistance.
Moverman also gives Montgomery the chance to work out a few mutual issues with Stone, a veteran of the Gulf War sidelines whose detail seems to have marked him as deeply as combat. Harrelson is fighting fit, but something about his shaved head and his defeated air brings to mind a louche version of Marlon Brando's ruin of a soldier from Apocalypse Now. When he's not briefing Montgomery on the studiously detached tactics of their work--targets are "NOK," use direct words, avoid physical engagement, make sure your retreat is open--he's busting his balls in a bar. And that last part is a symptom of the movie's minor problems.
Moverman goes to lengths to establish Montgomery's alienation from almost everyone, most especially Stone, but he still ends up hanging out with his superior after hours. They even go away for a weekend together. Olivia's son (Jahmir Duran-Abreau) has just lost his dad, but he and Montgomery are soon trading tentative broccoli jokes. So much about The Messenger feels so grounded, so authentic--most especially every frame featuring Foster and Morton together--but it occasionally lapses into pat, even cute. Moverman and company have created a worthy and winning movie that perhaps earns itself a few easy moments, but its victory is not complete.