Review: The Messenger

Oren Moverman’s superb depiction of a side of war we don’t often see is a sobering tale featuring two outstanding performances from Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson.

Directed by: Oren Moverman
Written by: Oren Moverman, Alessandro Camon
Starring: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Steve Buscemi, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, Yaya DaCosta

Released: 2009 / Genre: Drama / Country: USA / IMDB

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The Messenger is the directorial debut of Israeli-born filmmaker Oren Moverman. His best known work includes screenwriting duties on the 2000 film Jesus’ Son starring Billy Cudrup, Samantha Morton and Jack Black, and the 2007 Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There starring Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger and many other established stars. The transition from writer to director can be fraught with danger but Moverman sidesteps the usual drawbacks with a confidently executed story about a little-seen side of warfare.

Ben Foster plays Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery who has returned from Iraq as a declared war hero. He is troubled by the events that occurred during his tour of duty, the mental and physical scars still evident. Consequently, he is assigned to recovering alcoholic Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) to deliver notices to the families of the deceased. Montgomery isn’t happy about the assignment and his concerns are made worse by the trauma caused to those families when he and Stone deliver the notice. Stone is a seasoned professional and appears undeterred by their role in the army, but Montgomery cannot help but feel these families pain. One assignment leads to the house of Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton) whose husband has been killed in action. Montgomery forms an unlikely friendship with the woman and finds that they can help each other through their traumas, while Stone and Montgomery’s time together is a healing process for them both.

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The Messenger is a sobering film about a side of war we don’t see in the media. Montgomery and Stone’s job is to travel to the next of kin’s home and deliver the message of a soldier’s death in person. They cannot show emotion, they cannot put an arm of condolence around the family member, they cannot do or say anything that isn’t part of their prescribed job function. It makes for harrowing viewing. One rule they must abide by is that the message of death has to be delivered to the next of kin, and nobody else. When the two soldier’s turn up at one family’s home, they are met by the deceased soldier’s pregnant girlfriend. However, despite the woman’s plea to the men to tell her why they are there, they must wait silently while the deceased soldier’s mother – and official next of kin – finishes her telephone conversation. It is a very powerful and moving scene. In a largely unedited sequence, set in the quiet, comfortable surroundings of a suburban living room, Moverman encapsulates the sheer horror of war in the two soldier’s helpless expressions and the distraught screams of the dead man’s mother and pregnant girlfriend.

Moverman ensures the almost episodic nature of Stone and Montgomery’s task never becomes maudlin, the various families having differing make-ups and consequently differing reactions. Steve Buscemi plays one father who is delivered the news and he becomes angry, blaming the soldier’s for not fighting alongside his son; another father is astonished to learn his daughter is the next of kin of a young soldier having secretly married the man before his tour of duty. Giving the family notice of a loved ones death becomes a harrowing event, not only for those receiving the message but for the soldiers delivering it. In those short few minutes we see the steely resilience of soldiers who are trained to ignore pain placed in a situation that starkly contrasts the horrors their ingrained courage had previously prepared them for. It is a telling example of the very worst attributes of war and the haunting, long-lasting effect it has on everyone involved.

With its focus on Montgomery, we see a psychologically and physically scarred soldier begin to come to terms with his experiences in Iraq. His unlikely friendship with Olivia fills an emptiness that both characters feel – she lost her husband, he lost friends in battle. They share a common knowledge of army protocol but it is Olivia’s troubled relationship with her now deceased husband that develops an interesting dynamic between her confused sense of loss and Montgomery’s protective instincts.

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It is fitting, given that the film is centred around Ben Foster’s character, that the Boston-born actor gives one of the finest performances of his career. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure he was up to this, but he has proved me wrong. Foster’s Montgomery is a man who has stared death in the face. He’s a portrait of manufactured, army-trained resolve and manner, but his tarnished heart threatens to erupt through the pristine military exterior. One outstanding sequence sees Foster graphically recall a fire-fight, where some of his fellow soldiers died, without a single cut from Moverman’s camera. Woody Harrelson is equally as good and the film hinges on the two soldier’s relationship. There’s an immediate tug of war between the younger man’s angry response to being posted to notification duty and the seasoned Stone’s mechanical professionalism to army protocol. As the film progresses we see the human side of these two men seep through the cracking walls of their military training. They are, evidently, overcoming a necessary desensitisation to life and death and returning to something resembling a former self before war.

The Messenger is a terrific film that deservedly received two Academy Award nominations – one for Woody Harrelson’s performance and one for Moverman’s original screenplay. It is a unique depiction of the little-seen and scarcely spoken about side of modern warfare that, in its brief moments of bringing home the terrible message that someone has died, encapsulates the horrors of war both in its deadly consequences thousands of miles away and its humane, sobering effect on the families left behind. Moverman’s film is therefore an interesting expose on the role of the army and its protocol, and a moving character study.

The Messenger is released in the UK on DVD/Blu-ray October 17th. We have five copies of the DVD to giveaway. Click here for details.

Review by Daniel StephensSee all reviews

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Adam Moody Reply

    Nice review. I thought this film was wonderful also, both Harrelson and Foster do such a good job.

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    Rodney Reply

    I have heard amazing things about this film – I can’t wait to see it. My wife’s father is in the military, and one of her biggest fears while he was in Afganistan and Iraq is that one day there’d be a knock on the door or phone call to say he’d been killed (although it was a remote possibility, he was in the medical corp and not even close to front-line action) but I always figured the people who have to do that “telling the family” job were brave souls themselves.

    Goddam, I wonder when Ben Foster will get his first Oscar?

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    Stevee Reply

    I loved this film. It was so moving and the performances were all brilliant. Even though it got two Oscar nominations, I just don’t feel like this was loved enough! Nice review!

  4. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Adam: Thanks for stopping by Adam. This film went above and beyond my expectation. A real gem.

    @Rodney: Yeah, you must watch this as soon as you can. I really didn’t think Ben Foster was up to this – I just think of him as the wet-behind-the-ears kid from Get Over It. But he’s fantastic, as is Woody Harrelson. This is a really moving film…and unique too.

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    Castor Reply

    Great movie! Foster gives a more than solid performance (too bad he didn’t get an Oscar nod for it) and overall, it’s a great story revolving around the little known traditions of reporting the bad news to military families

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