Film : "The Messenger" delivers heartbreak
Oren Moverman's debut film, "The Messenger," tells a war story in which not a single weapon is fired or bomb exploded. The Martha's Vineyard Film Society screens this haunting movie Friday, Feb. 19, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard haven.
With the Oscar ceremonies less than two weeks away, every 2009 movie seems to get measured by what awards it may rack up. "The Messenger" has garnered two Oscar nominations, one for Woody Harrelson as Best Supporting Actor, and one for Best Original Screenplay. It deserves to win both.
The movie tells a quiet, psychologically intimate story about two soldiers whose job is to deliver the bad news about a soldier's death to the next of kin (NOK). Its underlying theme about the human toll war takes on the domestic front delivers a powerful punch.
"The Messenger" opens tellingly with an extreme close-up of Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) newly home from Iraq, as he puts drops in his injured eye and then tries to focus. On go the dark glasses, and Montgomery greets his childhood sweetheart.
Director Moverman, an Israeli combat veteran, withholds from the viewer the literal facts of the couple's fractured relationship, but the bouquet Kelly (Jena Malone) offers Will speaks volumes. Still recovering from multiple injuries, Montgomery is reassigned for his last few months of military service to bereavement notification duty.
Capt. Tony Stone (Harrelson) is the superior experienced in NOK duty who shows Montgomery the ropes. The script balances their personalities in subtle ways. Stone is a by-the-book military man, a thrice-married alcoholic who hides his feelings behind a stiff, jovial façade.
Wearing their dress uniforms, the two make one excruciating call after another, each more heartrending than the last. Sometimes the NOK subjects them to abuse; other times, the person they must deliver the news to is not someone they expect. In every case, military rules require that they not touch the NOK but simply state their business and leave.
Stone seems to have found solace and emotional protection in the rigid rules the two must follow. On the other hand, Montgomery, struggling with his own issues about his combat experiences, has the impulse to empathize and console.
The more gregarious of the pair, Stone enjoys the bar scene and one-night stands, while Montgomery prefers to nurse his pain in solitude. That changes when he and Stone have to deliver their message to Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton, nominated for Oscars for "In America" and "Sweet and Lowdown"), a young mother.
Montgomery reaches out to her tentatively, aware that he is breaking with Army protocol, and potentially exploiting her vulnerability. The camera remains an unobtrusive but penetrating presence.
In one brief scene, mothers line up at a chain-link fence and watch as the two messengers march past on their way to a neighborhood home to deliver their grim news. In another, a traffic cop, who stops Montgomery for running a red light, is rendered speechless when he discovers their mission.
As difficult as it may be to stomach the profound sadness inherent in the subject matter of "The Messenger," the movie deserves the largest of audiences, in particular among the young men and women who may idealize or romanticize wartime military service.
"The Messenger" never over sentimentalizes its story or turns maudlin. It takes the viewer deep into the core of war's impact on a personal level, leaving the political arguments to others. Actors Ben Foster, Samantha Morton, and Steve Buscemi (as a grieving father) deserve as many kudos as Woody Harrelson.
"The Messenger," Friday, Feb. 19, 7:30 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, 54 Spring Street, Vineyard Haven. Tickets $8 ($5 for MVFS members). Doors open at 7 p.m. For more information, go to mvfilmsociety.com.