Film Review #226: The Messenger
Director: Oren Moverman
Cast: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton
“I’m not gonna be giving any hugs,” Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) assures Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), in a tight, careful voice. Sent home from Iraq after a combat injury, Montgomery lands in Fort Dix, New Jersey, where the Army finds something for him to do in the last few months of his hitch. Stone, an older career soldier and veteran of the first Persian Gulf War, has been briefing him on proper deportment with the “N.O.K.” – next-of-kin – during a Casualty Notification call. There’s a manual that covers every eventuality in excruciating detail, which Stone goes through with the younger man over diner coffee, demanding twice that Montgomery look him in the eye when he answers.
Always tethered to beepers, Montgomery and Stone are racing to beat CNN and FOX News and Face Book to survivors. They speak only with designated next-of-kin – never to neighbors or mistresses – and can, if asked, relate how a soldier died and call someone for the next-of-kin if needed. When they cross one wide yard in a tract of military bungalows and a line of silent women press against a chain-link fence watching them, knowing what two officers in dress uniforms means, you start to wait for the IED to explode and begin to see that is what happens for families who get this visit.
Stone is completely earnest about doing his duty correctly here, not because he likes the power of rank, but because this is the way he can serve. Stone is an alcoholic shakily on the wagon – later he and Montgomery share an epic binge during which each stands up for the other, recreating in a lakeside brawl and a drunken invasion of a decorous wedding reception the battlefield solidarity each feels he has so fallen short of – and beneath Harrelson’s big-lug exterior you can see both Stone’s fastidiousness and his decency. Casting Harrelson in this role was audacious, and he picked up a slew of nominations and awards last winter for his performance.
Ben Foster first hit my radar in the 2007 re-make of 3:10 to Yuma, playing the jittery, primping outlaw Charlie Prince, almost feral in his closeness to thoughtless savagery, in thrall of Russell Crowe’s outlaw Ben Wade and of a type as capable of turning on Wade as say, Robert Ford did on Jesse James or Jack McCall on Wild Bill Hickok. Foster has some of that same riveting, tightly-wound quality as Will Montgomery, enough to generate an attentiveness in us that’s mirrored in Montgomery’s own hyper-alertness and, here, a deceptive calm. He is all watchfulness, this soldier, and fittingly his injury endangered his vision (the film opens with him putting drops in his eye and inspecting his eye socket, scarred with a delicate crescent, in a mirror).
Montgomery has seen things he can’t talk about and done things he’s ashamed of, his old girlfriend Kelly (Jena Malone) is marrying someone else, and he doesn’t feel much like the hero the newspapers make him out to be. Kelly visits him on base and it emerges that she came to retract the invitation she ill-advisedly mailed him to her wedding. She also takes this opportunity to sleep with him one last time. Somehow, because she’s on top, you understand this was her idea, and that he’s letting her, just as he lets her spin him a tale of how she came to leave him and tells her it’s alright. And it is alright too, even a relief, because in this small part, Malone conveys that the vapid, pretty Kelly would never be equal to what Montgomery will need now.
That would be a grown up, and on one of his notification calls with Stone, Montgomery meets Olivia Pitterson (the great Samantha Morton), whose first response is regret for how hard this duty must be on the men who brought her the news. She has a nine-year-old biracial son, Matt, and when Montgomery comes back, she lets him stay for pizza. Olivia has a watchfulness that matches Montgomery’s as they inch toward one another. And as it happens, he does give hugs: one day in a tiny convenience store run by the next dead soldier’s parents, to Stone’s incredulous dismay. When the elderly father vomits and collapses, Montgomery crouches on the floor next to the couple and gathers them in his arms, completing his script in a low voice.
There are six vignettes of notification in this film around which Montgomery and Stone form a friendship and Montgomery and Olivia tentatively start a relationship. Former Israeli paratrooper Oren Moverman has spent a couple decades learning screenwriting and that shows here; he is also directing his first feature-length film. He shepherds remarkable performances from Foster, Harrelson and Morton, as well as vivid cameos from Malone and also from Steve Buscemi as one angry father. (Both Foster and Buscemi are working on one of Moverman’s new film projects, titled Rampart.) The Messenger was shot over 28 days in May 2008 in half a dozen New Jersey towns around Fort Dix, and premiered at the Sundance Festival in January 2009. It opened theatrically in November, just in time for a couple Oscar nominations. While it’s remained on a few screens ever since – at most, 36 one week nationwide – it never did hit Central New York. Of course we are already fighting the terrorists here, and I don’t mean in Times Square.
Posted for the Syracuse City Eagle weekly on 5/18 at www.cnylink.com – click A&E. “Make it Snappy” is a regular film column that appears in the Syracuse City Eagle weekly.