By Don Simpson | November 16, 2009
Director: Oren Moverman
Writer(s): Alessandro Camon, Oren Moverman
Starring: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone
After recovering from wounds inflicted during a tour of duty in Iraq, the heroically decorated Will (Ben Foster) is assigned to the Army’s Casualty Notification Office in the drab environs of suburban New Jersey. Upon his return stateside, Will is greeted with some flowers and a shag by Kelly (Jena Malone) – the girl he left behind. Unfortunately, this hello is also goodbye as Kelly is engaged to another man. Despite his cool expression we know that Will is emotionally devastated.
Will’s superior officer, Tony (Woody Harrelson), is a recovering alcoholic carrying other apparent psychological baggage as well. Tony catholically abides by the casualty notification manual – meaning that he avoids any gestures of sympathy (most importantly he does not touch the next of kin) – and his goal is to get the message delivered as clearly and concisely as possible; his poker-faced persona further compliments this technique. Behind the poker face, however, Tony is a ticking emotional time-bomb.
When Will begins to grow into his role and opts to not follow the casualty notification manual as reverently as Tony does, Tony goes ape-shit. Will befriends Olivia (Samantha Morton) – the wife of a killed soldier whom they recently notified – causing Tony and Will’s relationship to quickly sour. The two men who have tenaciously withheld their emotions until this point, but they have each been pushed too far. Luckily for all parties involved, including surrounding communities, Tony and Will find solace and camaraderie in alcohol. At this point, the proverbial wagon has left Tony in the dust and he makes no effort to get back on it. Despite getting them both into trouble, the alcoholic binge loosens the two men up a bit and as a result saves their friendship.
The superbly acted The Messenger is apolitical in that it opts to focus solely on the affects that war has on the families left behind by killed soldiers and the Army officers who are the first to notify the next of kin. Foster and Harrelson are two of my favorite actors working today, and The Messenger exemplifies why. Both actors have a remarkable knack for revealing a limitless amount of information about their characters while remaining utterly stone-faced all the while.
First-time director Oren Moverman’s (co-writer of Jesus’ Son and I’m Not There) The Messenger is like the bastardized lovechild of In the Valley of Elah and Wendy and Lucy. The actors have an infinite amount of time to play out their scenes, with seemingly no limits and definitely no rush. Morton, especially, seems to hijack the camera as it repeatedly lingers on her while she does nothing and says very little. Essentially, The Messenger is about the space in between the lines of dialogue (co-written by Moverman and Alessandro Camon) rather than the words which serve to form more of a frame than a picture.