Friday, March 12, 2010

Don't Shoot The Messenger... He is Already Hurt

The Messenger

If The Hurt Locker had been released in 2008, shortly after its screening at The Toronto International Film Festival, would The Messenger have received more love from the Academy Awards this year? I could not help wonder about this after watching the film. Two nominations, for supporting actor and screenplay, seem far too slight for a film that runs circles around Best Picture contenders like The Blind Side. While The Messenger may not be as suspenseful, or as popular, as The Hurt Locker is; it packs a strong emotional punch that cannot be ignored.

After being injured in Iraq, Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is ordered to spend the remaining months of his military service in the Casualty Notification team. This particular division of the army is responsible for notifying next of kin when their loved ones, in the U.S. Army are killed while on duty. Montgomery would rather be back in Iraq with his squadron, instead of working with the rigid Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson). Stone is a veteran in the division and is responsible for showing Will the ropes. Despite their differences, Montgomery and Stone soon realize that they share an emotional pain which is directly linked to the war. Besides adjusting to a new role, Montgomery must also confront unexpected feelings that arise when he meets Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton), the wife a recently deceased officer.

Director Oren Moverman, who was the writer behind Jesus' Son and I'm Not There, subtly shows that the Iraq War not only has devastating ramifications for the troops overseas, but also their families and the soldiers still in America. We see the grief in the faces of every family member who is unfortunate enough to receive a visit from the Casualty Notification team. Montgomery and Stone's first visit to the Washington house is so emotionally charged that it is unfathomable how these men go through this five or six times each day. Even when the men are off duty, they still cannot escape the constant reminder of the sorrow due to war. There is a great scene in the film where Montgomery is having a drink at the local bar and observes a welcome home party for a returning soldier. Despite his best efforts to maintain the levity of the evening, the soldier clearly feels like a stranger in his own country. The soldier's awkward speech shows that he is not only struggling to come to terms with what he saw overseas, but also how foreign life outside of Iraq is. It is as if the soldier feels ashamed for being home while others are still fighting.

There is a level of guilt that sweeps through every single character like a virus in The Messenger. It is one of the most compelling, and heartbreaking, aspects of the film. Stone is riddle with guilt for things he was not able to do, and relationships that were ruined as a result. Some of the families Stone and Montgomery visit express guilt over how things ended with their loved ones before the war, and the fact that they will never have a chance to fix it. The interesting thing is that the guilt is not only associated with loss, but new beginnings as well. This is most evident in the Will/Olivia story arc. Not only must Montgomery cope with being alive; but he also feels guilt for both pushing his old flame (Jena Malone) into the arms of another man, and for falling for woman whose husband is a fallen soldier. Montgomery's guilt confines him like a prisoner in an increasingly shrinking cell. Olivia’s guilt, on the other hand, is more connected to society’s expectations of a recent widow. In Olivia’s eyes, the soldier she loved died, figuratively speaking, years ago after his personality changed upon returning from his second tour of duty. Although Olivia clearly has feelings for Will, she is constantly aware of what the neighbours and her son will think. There is a level of guilt that is associated with moving on too soon which makes Olivia as much of a prisoner as Will is.

Oren Moverman's script is excellently layered, yet never feels like it is preaching at the audience despite its subject matter. Moverman merely wants to show a side of war that often does not get featured on film. The performances in the film are outstanding. While Woody Harrelson's work received an Academy Award nomination, and rightfully so, it is astonishing that neither Ben Foster or Samantha Morton were recognized for their respective roles. Granted they probably would not have won against some of the big names this year, but at least their work would garner notice on a larger scale. Foster keeps getting better with each role, it is only a matter of time before people start to give him serious leading man status. Ben perfectly captures a man who is trying to maintain order on the outside, while being a complete wreck on the inside. Morton is one of those actresses who can make reading Dr. Seuss aloud worthy of an award. Her performance in this film is so subtle and honest, that it is easy for some to miss all of the brilliant nuances that she brings to the role. I have no doubt that if the role was "flashier", she would have been nominated. Regardless, do not let the lack of award buzz keep you away from The Messenger. The film may be small but it is filled with large, and poignant, moments.


  1. Excellent review CS. I love this film so very much (it trumps 9 of the 10 BP nominees for me, including Hurt Locker) and Foster and Morton really are exceptional. I suppose momentum is everything, and unfortunately this didn't have any.

  2. I couldn't agree more about how amazing and underrated this film is. It really amazed me that no matter how many times a scene unfolds of the two soldiers going to deliver their news, it never gets any easier to watch them do it.

    Likewise, the scene where Will and Olivia are in her kitchen and shadowboxing their way through getting physical might very well be one of the most beautiful scenes I've ever watched.

    I must say that where awards are concerned, I was dismayed that Woody got all the love and Ben Foster kept coming up empty.

    Great review!

  3. @Andrew - For me it trumps 4 of the 10 BP nominees, but that might increase upon repeat viewing. I think it was tough for this film to get any momentum with all the critics going gaga for Locker.

    @Hattter - That kitchen scene was great. There was so much romantic tension in that moment. I am still in shock that Foster got shafted in regards to overall recognition.


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