The Messenger is the directorial debut from Israeli screenwriter Oren Moverman, whose previous credits included the likes of Jesus’ Son and I’m Not There. The film follows Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), a US Army Staff Sergeant who’s returned from fighting in Iraq as a war hero, but still has time to serve.
He’s assigned to the Casualty Notification Service, where he is to be mentored by Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) who through his years doing the job has managed to perfect his technique to maintain professionalism as well as professional distance from the families of the deceased.
The pair clash over a number of things, but when Montgomery ignores his instructions and starts to comfort the relatives of the deceased, and later becomes romantically involved with the widow of a soldier (Samantha Morton), his position is compromised as he continues to struggle with the volatile and unpredictable emotions of the various next of kin.
The Messenger is frequently devastating, particularly during the various notification scenes, where the outpouring of emotions is handled beautifully by the cast, including some fantastic turns by the likes of Morton and Steve Buscemi. The reactions of the next of kin are all very different, but the grief is always clear.
Ultimately, the film is so much more than a succession of notifications of death, and is as much about how soldiers struggle to adjust to life at home once they’ve seen the horrors of war as it is about how the families of fallen soldiers react to news of the death of their loved ones. It effectively shows how death is very much a part of everyday life for a soldier, even when they return to the safety of home.
I mentioned previously how those portraying the families of the deceased deliver great performances, but the standout performances are really by the two leads. Harrelson, in particular, delivers a performance that more than justified his Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor as, despite presenting a calm and cool veneer, it’s clear to see his internal struggle as he delivers the news. Outside of his job, we get a clearer image of him as a person, and see that he’s someone who has had a troubled personal life as a result of his career, with three divorces and a history of alcoholism – although he still frequents bars to pick up women.
Ben Foster is an actor whose work I enjoy a great deal, and he’s someone that can make the jump from serious drama such as this to genre fare such as Pandorum and The Mechanic with relative ease. He more than justifies his billing as the lead here, and although his role isn’t as showy as Harrelson’s, he still has layers of complexity to his character. A man who seems to struggle with his label as a war hero and finds his life is far from what he wants when he returns home. When in Iraq his role was clearly defined, but on returning to America he finds his girlfriend is engaged to another man and he’s assigned to a role that’s outside of his comfort zone.
The direction throughout is impressive, and I was surprised to read that this was the work of a first-time director as it’s an accomplished piece of work that, while far from showy, serves the material incredibly well, and rarely misjudges the tone.
It’s hard for me to imagine when I’ll return to The Messenger, given how emotionally exhausting I found it, but it’s a film that I’m glad I’ve seen. It’s a powerful film that gives a tasteful look at grief without ever seeming exploitative, with some moments of levity included to lighten the tone every now and then. When you add in the quality of the performances, this is a film well worth seeking out.
The Messenger may not have the type of transfer that will blow you away at first, since it contains nothing in the way of action set pieces or rich, vivid colours that showcase its image quality. But like the film itself, it’s a subtle and quietly confident transfer with few faults, and appears very natural throughout, offering nice details for the most part. There are instances of grain here and there, though, which does weaken the presentation, particularly with black levels, but whether this was down to the transfer or how the film is lit is unclear.
Audio-wise, there’s very little here that will give a surround sound system a workout, but the dialogue is clear throughout, and this is by far the most important aspect of the production anyway. The score occasionally filters through to rear speakers, but generally it’s ignored.
With regards to extras there were none on the disc, sadly, which is a shame, as the US release contained some bonus documentaries as well as a feature length commentary with Harrelson, Foster, Moverman and producer Lawrence Inglee.
It’s a below average presentation for a film that, while it has its flaws, still contains plenty to appreciate, despite being incredibly tough going at times.
You can rent or buy The Messenger at Blockbuster.co.uk.