Tuesday, April 16, 2013

12. The Messenger - 2009 (USA)

Another thought provoking Iraq War drama. OK, Jarhead was poignantly brilliant and The Hurt Locker won a bunch of awards, with merit, but can't we just leave the soldiers to the war and go back to not thinking about it?

Not when movies like The Messenger are there for watching. Everything about this film screams "war is ugly", and in the tradition of Iraq War dramas, focuses on a unique but sad reality of war: notifying the next of kin. The story follows Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster). Home on a hiatus after a road-side bombing, Montgomery is assigned under recovering alcoholic and career-soldier Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) to a Casualty Notification Team. His job: to beat any media story, uploaded photo or soldier's blog to the family of a war casualty and notify the next of kin. He has to do it without saying "passed or "no longer with us", anything that could be misunderstood, and he has to do it even if they scream, slap him across the face, beat him with their shoe or reach for their gun. And it all happens.

The direction from Oren Moverman (who also served as co-writer) is just as provocative. Placing juxtaposing shots of children running after the ice-cream van with Montgomery during a call out, Moverman never lets the viewer forget how unfair life can be. Similarly, the pairing of emotionally shut-down Montgomery with emotionally spent Stone incites a lot of questions as they go down their respective roads (I really didn't want to use the words "emotional journey"). Why does one soldier live while another dies? What kind of family is more deserving to have their loved one come home over another? How do you make your life count, fighting in a war no one believes in? It's provocative stuff.

The film is shot with very little colour but plenty of metaphor, very cleverly reflecting the moral grey areas of the subject matter. With two emotionally stunted lead characters who are on duty 24/7, there is little conveyed in the dialogue or body language of the effect their job has on them, however Foster and Harrelson brilliantly milk every long silence and slight change of expression to show every detail of what's going on behind the mask. Foster is far from his teen romance roles here, excellently portraying the silent and brooding young soldier, while Harrelson compliments as the larrikin captain trying to hide the disappointment of an unfulfilled war career.

For a war movie that has no explosions flipping cars in the air, or limbs flying across the screen, this film is incredibly entertaining. After Jarhead it was hard to believe another action-less war movie could be so darn good, but The Messenger ticks all the boxes.

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