by NIR SHALEV
Serving in Iraq, Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) was hit by shrapnel while helping his fellow soldiers during a firefight. His wounds were treated and he was shipped back to the U.S. To serve out the last three months of his tour he is transferred to a Casualty Notification Team (CNT) where he must deliver grim messages to the next of kin (N.O.K.) of fallen soldiers. Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) is assigned as his mentor and must tutor him in the protocols of the job.
At first Montgomery is dumbstruck as to why he, a war hero must deliver bad news to N.O.K.s, but he takes the job with full respect and decides immediately to perform as to the best of his abilities, as a good soldier should. We follow the two men as they drive to different houses over the following weeks and we learn, through our identification with Montgomery, of Stone’s routines and rules. One rule is that “One cannot use the words ‘lost’, ‘expired’, or ‘passed away’;” another is “unless it’s a medical emergency one must not touch the N.O.K. They are not family members or friends.” The rules are inflexible for a reason but almost immediately Montgomery falls for a widow.
The Messenger is in part a “don’t shoot the messenger” tale, but mostly focuses on what happens to the messenger on an emotional level when performing his duty. Montgomery is sickened and frightened by the results of delivering terrible news, as anyone would be, and always finds it difficult to contain his anger. He grows more and more depressed as a consequence of his injuries and of performing his job well. Eventually he grows accustomed to the job on a professional level like Captain Stone has but that doesn’t mean either acts like a robot. On the contrary, we can see on their faces that they hide terrible feelings of regret and sorrow.
Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton) is the aforementioned widow and having to take care of her son, left fatherless she seems to be in perpetual shock which is easily mistaken for calm nerves. Montgomery falls for her because he feels bad for her and, possibly on a subconscious level feels obligated to replace her late husband. But why her of all N.O.K.s? Well, she might just be the target age for him and he feels more comfortable than awkward in randomly dropping by her house unannounced and assisting her in anything she may need help with.
Spending time with Olivia doesn’t help Montgomery recover and neither does spending nights with Stone, a recovering alcoholic who may or may not have been secretly drinking for months. Everybody in this film is wounded on an emotional and physical level and writer/director Oren Moverman doesn’t pull any punches. He showcases his characters respectfully but without hiding them behind a veil of mystery. They are who they are at face value and the performances by Foster, Harrelson and Morton are powerfully raw and convincing.
Ben Foster should finally be placed on the map of young actors that can deliver great performances. He presents Montgomery as if he’d personally flown to Iraq in order to properly learn how to portray his character with conviction; not just as a young war veteran but as a soldier who must remain emotionally detached from N.O.K.s. Woody Harrelson is as great as ever. This is his most convincing and best performance since Natural Born Killers and although his character is the most complex in the film, we are always aware of what’s going on in his mind. He’s gone past the point of showcasing emotions but we can tell that Stone loves and hates his job equally. Woody Harrelson is nominated for a Golden Globe and I hope he receives a nomination for an Oscar. But I believe that this is mostly Ben Foster’s film; most of its weight sits on his shoulders and I believe that he’s been overlooked.
This film reminds me of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler in the way that we follow these people on a day to day basis, in a quasi-documentary style, and we feel what they feel. We are glad that we don’t have to do their job but also we can’t look away. This is the strongest dramatic film I’ve seen all year and I couldn’t look away, no matter how tough it was to watch. The actors portraying N.O.K.s are terrifyingly convincing, even though their performances are mainly based on showcasing extreme denial, shock, or anger. By far the most powerful is Steve Buscemi; his five minutes in this film are noteworthy.
Because this is an indie film, all the filmmaking techniques are showcased with simplicity. But the main problem I found with it is that the director relies too much on camera zooms. They happen constantly, visible in almost in every shot and they are mostly unnecessary. Although it grew tiresome at around the halfway mark, in no way does it diminish the film overall. This is one of the best movies of 2009.
This movie does not discuss the war in Iraq nor does it touch on its importance. This is a movie about message bearers and how their assignment is a tougher gig than field operatives’ because their task is destroying souls. Montgomery and Stone could easily exist in any decade and take part in any war. I am reminded of Mel Gibson’s Vietnam film We Were Soldiers because it too has segments that showcase CNTs and those N.O.K.’s reactions are also powerful. But this film focuses better on those reactions and the reasons for why the job needs to be done after all.
3 1/2 stars