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Review: The Messenger (2009)

The Messenger (2009)

Directed by: Oren Moverman

Premise: An Iraq war veteran (Ben Foster) is assigned a new position, notifying the family members of deceased soldiers. Things get complicated when he gets involved with a widow (Samantha Morton) of a recently deceased soldier.

What Works: The Messenger is a quiet but intense film. The three lead actors do a terrific job as characters coping with tragedy. Ben Foster is cast as a wounded Iraq war veteran at the end of his enlistment, and Foster plays the character as a man in an existential crisis. He is restless and angry, in part because of his fear of uncertainty about his future but also due to his lack of human connection. It is a careful performance that alternates between moments of steely resolve and tender vulnerability and Foster and the screenplay gradually reveal the character beneath the hardened exterior. Joining Foster is Woody Harrelson as his superior officer. Like Foster, Harrelson’s character is also dealing with survivor’s grief but the difference in age and rank makes Harrelson’s character a vision of who Foster’s character might become. Harrelson’s character struggles with substance abuse but Harrelson makes some interesting choices, avoiding the stereotypical portrayal of drunks in film. Instead, he is kind of a sad clown, proficient in his job but trapped in an unending parade of tragedy. Samantha Morton plays the widow who takes up with Foster’s character and their love affair manages great moments of emotional intensity despite lacking sex scenes or stereotypical romantic tropes. Morton is costumed and shot not as a Hollywood starlet but as a very real human being and the film finds the everyday beauty in her appearance, although not in an exploitative way. Similarly, Morton’s character has no apologies for her feelings and the film allows her to navigate the terrain of grief earnestly, trying to protect herself and her child from further hurt. Aside from the acting performances, The Messenger is a very effectively made movie, working its way through the stages of grief, and it is paced and edited very judiciously. The film is also well shot. Like its characters, the film looks real and lived in and it finds the beauty in its weariness, flaws, and injuries.

What Doesn’t: The ending of The Messenger does not provide a concrete resolution. It is an appropriate ending to the tone of the film but some audiences may find it frustrating that the story does not send Foster and Morton’s characters off into the sunset to live happily ever after.

DVD extras: Commentary track, documentary, featurette, the shooting script.

Bottom Line: The Messenger accomplishes something impressive: it is a portrayal of soldiers as survivors. It doesn’t make them victims to be pitied nor as invincible supermen. Instead, The Messenger acknowledges the characters’ humanity and thereby makes them more heroic and puts their experiences and sacrifices in a very real context.

Episode: #315 (November 14, 2010)