Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Messenger

2009. Dir: Oren Moverman. Starring: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone and Steve Buscemi. ●●●●○

I had given up on the possibility of a UK release of The Messenger, in spite of it's double Oscar nominations (Best Supporting Actor for Woody Harrelson and Best Screenplay) there hadn't been a sign of release until 2 years after it's US bow. Fortunately it has managed to squeeze out a very limited UK showing - just 5 cinemas - and whilst I wasn't able to make it to one of those I have already bought a copy on DVD and am delighted to be able to review the film here. Like In the Valley of Elah and the supermarket scene of The Hurt Locker this movie takes a look at the Iraq conflict in the context of the aftermath and the casulaties of war, but Oren Moverman's fly on the wall take on a Casulaty Notification Team outdoes both of those movies and could even be seen as the definitive Iraq movie.

The plot is simple, even bare, Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), recovering from multiple injuries sustained in battle, is assigned to a Casualty notification unit under the command of Captain Tony Stone (Harrelson) visiting the next of kin of soldiers killed in action and informing the worst. Essentially we follow the two protagonists as they bond during R&R as well as watching them repeat this horrific but necessary job on several iterations, meeting angry fathers (Buscemi) and stunned widows (Morton) and experiencing the wide variety of responses.

Our central protanonists are both superb. Foster is a tightly wound ball of rage unable to appreciate the emotional hurt of his own situation who slowly develops a level of catharsis through noticing the details of others coping with their loss. Whilst a burgeoning romance with Morton's (now) single mother gives him the momentum to reassess his priorities.

Harrelson brings a sarcastic and brittle edge to his former alcoholic with more experience than he would like in his present role, but desperately hiding the insecurities and feelings of survivors guilt.

These two individually put in career best work, but together their scenes are magnificently played and staged. From the cases where the camera follows close behind, hovering over their shoulders, dragging the viewer into the scene, increasing our culpability, their stony faces barely disguising the compassion and understanding behind their eyes. To the final confrontations at Foster's flat, both of them confessing their innermost insecurities admitting to their shared faults. Even the drunken shoot out, boys pretending to die takes on a more oppressive and deeper meaning in context.

The rest of the cast, in small but powerful roles, are equally commendable, with a deep reverance for all the families even when the circumstances could have descending into soap operatics the performances are too subtle to allow that.

Moverman with co-writer Alessandro Camon have crafted a script which fully understands the issues of war and the comaradarie of those who have fought and the consequences of conflict. And Moverman's direction is unique in drawing us into the grounded world they have created.

Ultimately I would be prepared to say this is almost certainly the definitive Iraq war movie, one that fully contextualises the unnecessary loss of life and the effects on the families left behind. I recommend this movie for anyone interested in current affairs and 21st century history.


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

One of my five favourites of the year (Harrelson, Foster and Morton made my top 5 in their categories too). It's such a simple film, but it's so well done. Glad you liked.

Runs Like A Gay said...

Short of a whole bunch of masterpieces coming out later in the year this will definitely be in my top ten. Exceptional filmmaking.