The Messenger, director Oren Moverman’s debut film after a successful screenwriting career, opened in 2009 to critical acclaim but limited popular success. It garnered two Academy Award nominations, made many year-end Top Ten lists, and earned a 90% critics approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. On the other hand, Wikipedia tells us The Messenger never made back its paltry $6.3 million production cost at the box office. The reasons for both the esteem and the disregard are easy to see. Intelligent and alert to its characters’ emotional lives, The Messenger features striking performances by Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson as US Army casualty notification officers charged with delivering notice of a loved one’s death in Iraq or Afghanistan to the casualty’s next-of-kin, and Samantha Morton as the now-widowed recipient of one of the officers’ deathly missives. The film’s grim subject is matched by its languid art-house film pacing, unsympathetic characters, and struggle to find a compelling storyline. Foster, as Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, an injured war hero, and Harrelson, as Captain Tony Stone, an embittered captain who never deployed, are cauldrons of pain, confusion, and loneliness. Alternately overly aggressive or defensive, the surly messengers of death treat each other miserably before reaching a rough rapprochement at the film’s end, though their self-hatred makes them proficient emissaries for the hateful news with which they punish their recipients. In terms of plot, Moverman has Staff Sergeant Montgomery fall for Olivia Pitterson, the character played by Morton—a huge violation of the rules the casualty notification officers work by. Pitterson is guarded in her grief and confusion, but ultimately sympathetic to Staff Sergeant Montgomery’s entreaties, which are clearly sexual in addition to emotional. The movie’s ending is bound to strike viewers as more sketchy than heart-warming.
Too harrowing for comfortable watching in the living room and hardly the stuff that would inspire a fun night out at the movies, The Messenger seems better suited for stage drama than cinematic entertainment. Plays invite intense explorations of human pain, with the darkened audience united in their experience of the tortured souls presented live for their contemplation. The roles played by the Foster, Harrelson, and Morton and the set-piece scenes where the soldiers notify parents and spouses that their loved one has died in combat would provide juicy fare for a generation of repertory actors. The notification scenes, six of them, for those not squeamish about watching human catastrophe as it unfolds, are wonderfully staged and performed. Probably no such mission proceeds entirely according to plan, but Moverman has engagingly brought to life idiosyncratic notifications and those that go drastically wrong. In one scene, for example, Captain Stone and Staff Sergeant Montgomery notify a young woman about her husband’s death in the presence of her father, who we learn didn’t even know she had married her beau before his deployment. In another, Stone and Montgomery must use a translator to deliver their scripted, recited message to a distraught Spanish-speaking father while his dead daughter’s infant plays in the background. In scenes such as these—undoubtedly based on reports from actual notification officers–The Messenger drives home the human cost of the wars in ways almost too grim to behold.
The Messenger interestingly dances with issues of military verisimilitude. I’m hardly the harshest critic in this regard, but couldn’t help noticing the goofiness with which the Foster and Harrelson characters wear their Army patrol caps—no soldier in for more than a week would fail to block his or her cap in convention with standard practice or wear it so sloppily. The younger, slighter Foster actually seems more like a junior officer than Harrelson, whose worn rigidness signals field grade officer or senior non-commissioned officer to me (though Captain Stone is said to be a prior-service enlisted soldier whose career as an officer is now topping out, a common enough occurrence in today’s military). But these quibbles don’t detract from the overall effectiveness of the movie. One scene, in addition to those mentioned above, really resonated with me. While drinking alone in a bar one evening, Staff Sergeant Montgomery overhears another vet, just returned, regaling his friends with stories from Iraq. Things go well initially, but the vet pushes his tale too far and soon crosses a line of experience and perspective his friends can’t fathom. As the laughter dies and silence descends upon the party, the vet’s epiphany that he is now far out of synch with his friends crushes him, and crushed me as I watched. Among all the other ways The Messenger is a beautiful downer, its representation of the broken circuits of communication connecting military and civilian is so far down as to be breathtaking.