The Messenger Review


Oren Moverman’s “The Messenger” is an effective drama about the tragedy of war. It focuses on two men who might have one of the worst jobs imaginable. They are responsible for delivering death notifications to the families of fallen soldiers. It’s a premise ripe for powerful moments and intense drama. The film has plenty of these, but not much plot to speak of. It sort of meanders along on the strength of these few powerful moments and some great performances. Still, what works in “The Messenger” really works.

Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) has just returned home after damaging his eyesight in the line of duty. He only has three months left in his tour, so he is assigned to casualty notification, an assignment he finds as undesirable as any he could imagine. His partner is Tony Scott (Woody Harrelson), a recovered alcoholic whose cynical attitude serves him well in this job. The pair travels from loved one to loved one delivering horrible news. Some take their grief out on the messengers; others collapse in heaps of sorrow. One woman, Olivia (Samantha Morton), takes the news surprisingly well. She shakes the two men’s hands and actually feels bad for them to have to deliver such news. Will is intrigued by her, and the two strike up an uneasy friendship.

That’s about it in terms of plot. The film is more of a character study. It’s also another in the seemingly endless line of “human toll of war” stories, albeit from a different angle then I’ve ever seen. Each “message” is different and equally heartbreaking. They also bring up different questions and points to ponder. Is it better to remain detached, as Tony would say, or should you do whatever you can to comfort these strangers? Is this job more or less desirable than actually fighting? Not every question is answered, but it is quite interesting to think about them.

The best reason to see “The Messenger” is to witness Ben Foster’s extraordinary performance. He carries around with him mountains of grief and guilt from his assignment and his experience while fighting. Foster’s performance is one of restrained intensity with moments of punctuated anger. As we reveal more and more layers to his character, the depth of Foster’s performance becomes clearer. It’s brilliant work, the finest of the young actor’s career. Woody Harrelson is also quite good. His performance is showier, but he still has some quieter moments in which he shines. Solid supporting work is provided by Samantha Morton as Olivia.

With other potential Oscar contenders (“The Lovely Bones,” “Nine”) dropping like flies, “The Messenger” stands a decent chance at landing a Best Picture nomination. It stands absolutely no chance of winning, but it might be able to sneak into the final ten. I don’t think it should, but it would be a nice story for a little film. Films like this are the reason I was happy the number of Best Picture nominees was expanded (at least in terms of the size of its profile, not its quality). In terms of acting, I think Woody Harrelson is close to a lock for Best Supporting Actor, Samantha Morton is right on the cusp of the Best Supporting Actress category, and Ben Foster is unfortunately a fringe candidate at best for a Best Actor nod.

I don’t know if I liked “The Messenger” (it’s not really that kind of film), but it’s definitely worth watching. Narrative arc is nearly nonexistent, but it has some really strong moments, as well as some terrific performances. Check it out if you have the opportunity.

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