Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Messenger (2009)

"The Rules of Dis-Engagement"

Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) has just rotated stateside from Iraq with shrapnel fragments from an IED explosion that have pierced his leg and screwed up his left eye. He comes home to find his girl-friend (Jena Malone) engaged to another man and very few options open, or as he puts it "the world is my oyster." He is then assigned to the "Casualty Notification Team" for New Jersey under the command of Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), as he is considered "a soldier of stature," and the job is a "zero defect mission."

"This mission is not just important," he is informed. "It is sacred."

No pressure.

He becomes part of the "Angels of Death" detail—informing the officially designated N.O.K.'s (Next of Kin) that their son, daughter, father, mother, sister or brother has been killed in Iraq, and there are specific rules: no contact, don't park close to the designated house, don't ask for directions ("besides, you're a man and men don't do that" says Stone), inform only the official N.O.K., knock on the door, rather than ring a cheery door-bell, "read the script, stick to the script," if the N.O.K. is not present—leave the premises, do not refer to the dead relative as "the deceased," inform the N.O.K. of the next steps in the process, say specifically that the relative has been identified and the circumstances of their death, do not leave room for hope. Most importantly, get out.

Like being a cop, it's one of those jobs where you mostly see people at their worst and the strain it imposes on the harbingers of death is considerable.
Take Stone, for example. Married three times ("twice to the same woman"), alcoholic and wound pretty tight, Stone is a blustery veteran of the first "brief" Iraq War, and he keeps Montgomery on a very tight leash through his first details (including Steve Buscemi and Samantha Morton) with the inevitable clashes and SNAFU's. Pretty soon, they're depending on each other and Montgomery starts to go off-script.

"The Messenger" is one of those little miracles of a movie, with a good script (by director
Oren Moverman and Allesandro Camon) that says a lot about the human condition and the pressures on the military in times of war and peace. the subject matter is depressing, but the movie has moments of gallows humor that emerge in times of grief, and the actors make the most of all the situations, prompting genuine laughs out of a tough situation. As the two park away from a house, they find themselves across the street from a park full of anxious mothers and children, all staring with a combination of expectancy and dread.

"Wall, it could be worse," drawls Stone. "It could be Christmas."

It's tempting to say that this is a good year for
Woody Harrelson, but it usually is, as he makes the most of his assignments. He was one of the few joys in the nihilistic theme park attraction that was "2012," and his witty work in "Zombieland" was a star-making turn, one that sets a character into archetype. His work in "The Messenger" has won him a deserved Best Supporting Actor nomination, and were it not for Christoph Waltz's definitive work in "Inglourious Basterds" (or Christopher Plummer's one-two punch of being the oldest nominee as well as it being inexplicably his first nomination after a distinguished career), one would be tempted to say he deserves to win. He's matched by Foster, who can be the most iritatingly showy performer—as he was in "3:10 to Yuma"—but here does contained, simmering work that occassionally explodes into self-destruction. Moverman worked with Todd Haynes on the smart, witty script for the Bob Dylan homage "I'm Not There," and now I want to see "Married Life" (his last script) to see just how consistent his work is. His mature, unshowy direction and his ability to mine (and make the most of) entertaining possibilities out of promising material, makes him a name to remember...and seek out.

"The Messenger" (2009) is a superb Matinee.

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