The Messenger (2009)

The military guy always knocks once

FThe Messenger posterrom the first frame of The Messenger, director and co-writer Oren Moverman keeps the audience as off-balance as his characters. For instance, the opening shot appears to be a shed tear, but things aren’t what they seem. Instead, Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is applying drops to his injured left eye. That, plus a bad leg and the unwanted label of ‘decorated war hero’ are the remnants of his tour in Iraq. 

With three months left to serve, Will and his medals are assigned to the ‘Casualty Notification Team’ – yes, those who dress in parade uniform to knock on doors and intone, ‘We regret to inform you.’ His partner has refined the job to a mechanical science. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) is a career soldier without much of a life – thrice-divorced, a semi-recovering alcoholic, an eager womanizer but a lonely soul. His advice to Will is to deliver the awful news from an emotionless distance. Just read the script, give no comfort, don’t pretend the blow can be softened. 

There are six delivered messages, the set-pieces that form the naked spine of the movie. Each is uniquely surprising, each is raw and unsentimental and yet deeply moving. Moverman (whose screenplays for Jesus’ Son and I’m Not There also combine the painful with the poetic) has written them with an exquisite ear, then let his camera look on unblinkingly. Again, it is death’s inevitability, the sheer tragic lack of suspense, that invests these scenes with such dreadful power.
Around these scenes, relationships slowly, tentatively, begin to develop. The most obvious involves Will and Tony who, in their distinct ways, are both making a virtue of isolation. Doom’s messenger by day, and a party-hearty jerk by night, Harrelson’s role is the showier, and he takes full advantage, laying on the false bravado while still capturing the essential loneliness. 

Since Will is a man of fewer words, Foster’s is the trickier performance, yet he conveys just as much, always hinting at the roiling interior beneath the impassive surface.  

But the still centre of the picture belongs to Samantha Morton, who plays the widowed Olivia, who receives the news with an eerie calm: Apparently, the war had changed her husband, for the worse, long before it killed him. But his death changes the emotional fabric again, and, later, Morton delivers the picture’s most chilling line with heart-breaking conviction: ‘I loved him once and, now that he’s dead, I love him again.’ Never has a truism – that a military death elevates victims into heroes, erasing their sins – been more truthfully rendered.
 – Rick Groen, The Globe and Mail  

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