The Messenger (Oscilloscope, R)

msgrthumb.jpgThe Messenger is director Oren Moverman’s first feature but shows a secure command of the medium.


Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) and Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) have perhaps the toughest job in the army: working for the Casualty Notification Service. When a soldier is killed they put on their dress uniforms, locate the official next of kin and deliver the dreaded words which begin “The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret….”

The army has a strict protocol for delivering this news: don’t speak to anyone but the next of kin, don’t deviate from the script, don’t attempt to offer counseling or “extend overly sympathetic gestures,” and don’t touch anyone unless there is a medical emergency. There are good reasons for those rules, which protect both the soldiers delivering the message and the families receiving it. But it’s still a terrible blow every time, and the two servicemen take different paths to deal with the emotional toll: Stone tries to emotionally distance himself by adhering scrupulously to the prescribed protocol (making him somewhat analogous to Anthony Mackie’s character in The Hurt Locker, who thinks that following procedures will keep him safe) while Montgomery allows himself to display some forbidden empathy toward the families.

The Messenger offers a complementary experience to Kathryn Bigelow’s justly lauded The Hurt Locker, focusing on the consequences of the war for civilians and stateside enlisted men rather than the experiences of men directly engaged in combat. It also highlights the gulf between those who have served in Iraq and nearly everyone else they deal with after returning home. Even friends and family of servicemen may feel that Iraq veterans exist on the opposite side of an unbridgeable canyon across which they shout in vain, while for the vast majority of Americans Iraq is just a place they hear about on the evening news.

The stress of constantly delivering bad tidings while being unable to offer any significant assistance wears on both Montgomery (recently returned from Iraq, where he suffered serious injury) and Stone (an army lifer struggling to maintain sobriety). Both are terribly lonely and find some strength in bonding with each other, although not enough to keep Stone on the wagon or Montgomery from beginning an inappropriate relationship with a war widow (Samantha Morton).

The Messenger is director Oren Moverman’s first feature (he wrote the scripts for Jesus’ Son, I’m Not There and Married Life) but shows a secure command of the medium. The film is informed both by Moverman’s experiences as an Israeli paratrooper and his knowledge of American life (he moved to New York in 1988 to pursue a career in film). The result is a film that feels very American (it’s set in and around Fort Dix, NJ), while at the same time expressing something universal about the experience of war for servicemen and their families.

The film allows scenes to unfold at their own pace, often in long takes, and never feels rushed. Moverman drew excellent performances from his lead performers (it may be Harrelson’s best role ever) as well as from a roster of distinguished actors in smaller roles; including Jenna Malone as Montgomery’s ex-girlfriend, Steve Buscemi as a grieving father, Morton as an oddly detached widow and Jahmir Duran-Abreau as her son. | Sarah Boslaugh

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