Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Messenger

Straightforward and intelligent human dramas are a rare breed in mainstream filmmaking these days-- possibly it feels like old hat, or the audience isn't there to support it financially enough, or Hollywood filmmakers simply lost touch how to make enriching, authentic stories without franchise friendly aspirations. Whatever the reason it makes a teeny-tiny, yet deeply affecting little film like The Messenger all the more meaningful; it's an unfussy serious tale with complex characterizations and nothing that resembles easily pat answers. Quietly powerful and poignant tales like the very personal and timely one dealt so very maturely in Oren Moverman's (screenwriter of I'm Not There) come across as almost bold and brash in today's climate of mainstream and independent cinema.

The Messenger stars Ben Foster as Sgt. Will Montogomery, an honored and heroic Iraq war vet on leave after a devastating accident. In his interim, he is assigned to the Army Casualty Notification Unit, the messenger of telling the next of kin that a soldier has been killed. He's put under the tutelage of Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson, today's National Board of Review winner for supporting actor), a been-there-done-that vet whose procedural obligations in handling the bad news are tightly scripted and non-committal; we knock on the door, tell the next of kin (or NOK) directly, leave-- no touching, no prodding. I know what you're thinking-- feel good movie of the year! And it's one of most uplifting human dramas in quite some time because it stares the subject matter in the face and has the balls to go to some heavy places without ever feeling false. A lot of that credit should go to Moverman who squares the camera and let's the actors do the heavy lifting, without feeling the need to over dress the emotion.

The notification scenes are devastation-- the first one the woman slaps Stone in the face, it feels like a violation, but true. The second one features a cameo by an angry Steve Buscemi, which is even more confrontational. And the game changer for the movie is when the duo inform Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton) about her dead husband. The scene is quiet and subtle, Olivia takes the news gracefully, and yet Montgomery starts to develop a fascination with her, a moral quandry that Stone warns is the worst thing to get involved in. The pair behave chastly, but it helps define Foster's character as a longing figure searching for a family since his tour days are if not indefinitely over, at least on hold. There's a beautiful scene in the middle of the film with Morton and Foster where the two talk and gently hold each other, the remarkable thing about the scene is a that it's an extended, medium two shot, without cuts or coverage. It's amazing to see these two beautiful performances together without the typical cut aways and close-ups. We see them act together which furthers the confidence of the filmmaking. There's another scene like that toward the end with Foster and Harrelson that's equally poignant.

And the best reason, but not the only reason, to see The Messenger is it's acting. Foster, an actor that I've never really given much credit to, just because most of his work I either haven't seen or haven't thought too much of, gives a very powerful portrait of bottled up young guy identified as an Army hero he doesn't agree with and grappling with guilt over things he can't change. Harrelson has the flashier role, and thus the more award friendly, but he never goes for charicture here, and delicately authenticates a role that could have come across as a cliche-- the nutso army guy\alcoholic\womanizer. Morton, who has the advantage of being in the film's most memorable and haunting shot (it's just her seen through a screen door, but those blue eyes could melt walls), is always a pleasure to watch on screen, just because there's always a hint of something beneath that will never be revealed; that mystery has always been here trademark.

Finally, The Messenger belongs in the super elite status of superior Iraq war narriatives, for like the best of films that tackle a difficult and potentially political terrain, it stays with the human element, never drifting in any didicatic tomes or sensationalism. No red or white state argument, just pure, straightforward, honest filmmaking aimed at mature adults desperately yearning for it. A-

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