Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Movie Review: The Messenger (2009) - 3 stars

Earlier this year, Kathryn Bigelow delivered a revelatory piece of filmmaking titled The Hurt Locker, which is arguably the best Iraqi war film to date. It's a focused, action-packed thrill ride that never loses any steam from start to finish. On the contrary, Oren Moverman's The Messenger isn't concerned with the hardships of war on the battlefield, but rather with the difficulties that occur back home. It's a strikingly uneven film that is often overly-ambitious in terms of how much conflict is created, but given the great performances of everyone involved, and the many moments of relentless emotion, this is another Iraqi war film worth seeing.

In a riveting performance, Ben Foster stars as Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, a soldier who has returned from Iraq after suffering a life-threatening injury in battle. He is clearly out of place back home as he struggles to reconnect with his lover Kelly (Jena Malone). Things get even worse as he is asked to work alongside Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) in the Army's Casualty Notification Unit.

Thus sets the stage for some of the year's most emotionally effective scenes. Several times throughout the film, Montgomery and Stone show up at the doorsteps of a deceased soldier's family, never knowing what type of reaction they will receive. Although Movermon uses a lot of these scenes in the movie, each one offers a different perspective on possible familial situations, and represents the vast range of emotions these that these families could experience.

One reaction Stone and Montgomery never thought they would receive after delivering the news is a polite voice and a couple of handshakes, but that is exactly what Olivia Pitterson (the excellent Samantha Morton) gives them. Stone is happy enough to walk away confused, but Montgomery isn't willing to walk out of this woman's life without knowing more. It's a tough thing -- to put it lightly -- to ask a soldier to inform someone of a loved one's death and then walk away without any feeling of hesitation or sympathy, and it is safe to say that Will isn't ready to make that type of commitment to the Casualty Notifications Unit. He tries, much to the dismay of Stone, to treat these people like human beings and not arbitrary names on a sheet of paper.

Moverman and co-writer Alessandro Camon have a very effective set-up story, but as the film goes on it seems that they keep wanting to accomplish more and more. As a result, this movie does jump around a lot and have somewhat of an unfocused feel to it, but as ineffective as Moverman is in keeping things simple, he is even more effective in getting great performances from his actors.

The director chooses to shoot a lot of the film's most emotional scenes -- whether they are between Foster and Morton or Foster and Harrelson -- with very little cuts, resulting in an almost overwhelmingly intimate feel. It's fascinating how much we get inside these characters with actually knowing very little about them. Foster's remarkably complex portrayal tells us so much about this character with very little dialogue. Although he does open up in a brilliant scene with Woody Harrelson, he is relatively closed-mouthed throughout, which makes the sympathy he earns all the more rewarding.

Harrelson's Stone is also a fierce man, but much more of a free spirit than Montgomery. The actor makes his character seem as if he could be a man in control of his emotions, when in reality is really just as depressed as any other man in his position would be. Like Foster, he keeps his emotions in check as long as possible until he just can't help himself anymore.

In all truth, The Messenger is a very uncomfortable film. From the harrowing front-door scenes to the grave moral dilemma that Will and Olivia face, there aren't many moments in this film that make you feel relaxed. There haven't been many scenes this year that seem intense when compared to the unbelievable suspense of seeing Foster and Harrelson waiting on those family's doorsteps. As a whole, Moverman's effort isn't the most polished, but the fearless performances and the brilliance of some of the aforementioned sequences make this film one that deserves to be seen.


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