Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Messenger (2009 film)

Directed by Oren Moverman with a script co-written with Alessandro Camon, The Messenger tells the story of a young U.S. army staff sergeant who accompanies a captain to give notice to families of fallen soldiers. During one trip, the young soldier falls for a widow as he deals with his own ethics issues while befriending his superior. A war drama that plays to the Iraqi war of the 2000s, it is a film that explores what families and soldiers go through when they have to deliver the news of death to families. Starring Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, and Steve Buscemi. The Messenger is a harrowing yet mesmerizing film from Oren Moverman.

Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) has just returned from Iraq following a tour of duty that has left him battered while his left eye was nearly damaged. The only person waiting for him is his girlfriend Kelly (Jena Malone) who reveals during dinner that she is getting married to another man. With a few months left for his time as a soldier, Will is called by Lt. Colonel Dorsett (Eamonn Walker) to go on an assignment with Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) to give notices to the families of fallen soldiers. Stone gives Will specific instructions about what to do and what not to do during these assignments. With Will watching the cynical, hardened Stone what he does, it is very hard for Will to give out these notices.

Still reeling from his wounds, the trauma of war, and Kelly’s engagement, Will tries to deal with issues through drinking and being alone in his apartment. During an assignment where he and Stone are giving notice to a woman named Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton). The two are baffled by her behavior as Will is intrigued while he and Stone continue to socialize in bars as Will is still intrigued by Olivia as he sees her at a mall with her son Matt (Jahmir Duran-Abreau). Will suddenly spends time with her while dealing with the assignments he’s giving out as he’s having a harder time about Kelly when he receives an invitation to her engagement party.

With Will continuing to spend his time with Olivia as she reveals plans to move to another city, he helps her as she reveals stories about her late husband. Will realizes he is getting too close as during a trip to another notice, Will overhears a man’s name as he came to him and his wife giving them the notice about their son’s death as Will does something that he shouldn’t have done. Stone is upset as Will reveals he’s tired of what not to do. With Will finally given a break, he and Stone go out for the weekend with a couple of young ladies (Lindsay Michelle Nader and Merritt Weaver) for some fun. Everything seems fine until the two men get drunk over their own issues as they crash Kelly’s engagement party and later have a heart-to-heart about their own experiences.

The film is about a soldier becoming a messenger to give notices to families of fallen soldier with a hard-ass captain while falling for a woman. That’s essentially the film’s plot as it’s mostly told through a loose form of storytelling. In reality, the film is a character study about a young man trying to deal with his new assignment along with his own issues from the war and at home. For Will Montgomery, he’s leading a complicated life where has to go see doctors about his left eye and at one point, he meets a returning soldier (Jeremy Strong) as that soldier tries to live a life in denial. Stabilizing his life is his assignment to give notices to families though it isn’t easy where at one point, he gives notice an angry father (Steve Buscemi). It’s in this widow named Olivia where Will finds not just comfort but a life outside of duty though he realizes that she is having a hard time with her own issues.

The screenplay that Oren Moverman and co-writer Alessandro Camon not only create a wonderful center into Will’s emotional struggle as well as his conflict in being a man and soldier. The writers also do some study on a few supporting characters, notably Olivia and Stone. Olivia’s reaction to the news of her husband’s death at first is baffling but once Will gets to know her and her son. Olivia is revealed to be just as complicated where there’s a great 8-minute scene of her talking about her late husband. What is revealed isn’t just a turning point for Will but also reveals why Olivia acted so strange about the news.

Then there’s Tony Stone, a man who is a hardened man who is concerned about his duty on the outside. On the inside is someone who is very fragile while dealing with his own issues. A recovering alcoholic for three years who fought on Desert Storm is someone that is just trying to keep things in order while at night, he flirts and sleeps with a bartender (Lisa Joyce). When he and Will go out for some fun, an eventual relapse happens as once the film nears its end. There is a poignant conversation about their own experiences and how hard it was for both of them. Another supporting character, though minor, that gets a bit of attention is Kelly. While she isn’t in the story very much, she does serve as motivation for Will while dealing with the fact that despite her love for him, she is moving on. The script overall is definitely brilliant in its study and looseness for its story.

Moverman’s direction is truly astounding in not just the way he portrays the dramatic elements of the film. It’s also how he avoids clich├ęs and finds something else that doesn’t give in to conventions. For many of the scenes where Will and Tony are to give notices, it’s all presented in a hand-held style that isn’t very shaky. For the rest of the film, it’s all about wide shots and simple shots to complement not just Will’s sense of isolation but also his need to connect. Even as he allows scenes of humor along with other scenes from Will’s perspective about things happening around him.

Moverman also succeeds in fleshing out the relationship Will has that includes the 8-minute scene of Olivia talking about her husband as it’s presented in one single take. It’s a slow but captivating scene as it’s all about the dialogue and restrained acting. It’s Moverman being observant while keeping the camera away as he wants the audience to be engaged by the conversation. The conversations that Moverman shoots which includes Will and Tony’s war stories is presented with few edits so the actors remain in character and just act. The simplicity and non-stylized approach to the direction is definitely wonderful as Moverman creates what is certainly an engaging yet hypnotic directorial debut.

Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski does a great job with the film‘s photography that is mostly straightforward with a heightened brightness for its daytime exterior scenes. Even as the nighttime exterior and interior scenes are shot with dark lights to complement the troubled moods some of the characters are going through as Bukowski’s work is worth noting. Editor Alexander Hall does a superb job with the editing in creating cuts that plays to the sense of longing and emotion in Will’s journey. Even as there’s some rhythmic cuts to play up to reactions while creating a leisured pace throughout the entirety of the film.

Production designer Stephen Beatrice and set decorator Cristina Casanas do some excellent work in the set pieces that includes Olivia’s home and Will’s apartment. Notably the lack of decorations and openness in Will’s apartment that reveals his own isolation. Costume designer Catherine George does a very good job with the costumes from the uniforms Will and Tony wear along with the casual clothes while creating a great red dress for the character of Kelly in her engagement party. Sound editors Leslie Shatz and Javier Bennassar do a fantastic job with the sound from the sparse world of Will‘s apartment to the chaos of the bars he and Tony frequent. Even as it helps with the quiet moments of the film as it’s just about the conversation and the low mix on the surroundings.

The music by Nathan Larson is wonderful for its sparse, guitar driven tone that plays up to Will‘s troubled mood as Larson dominates the score with a plaintive, arpeggio-laden guitar track throughout the film. Music supervisor Tracy McKnight also plays to that sparseness by having music be played on location rather as an accompaniment. Whether it’s a song like Home On the Range where Will and Tony sing drunkenly or music that’s on a bar or the radio. The soundtrack includes music by the Band, David Bowie, Brian Wilson, Rilo Kiley, Clutch, the Hold Steady, Willie Nelson, and other acts.

The casting by Laura Rosenthal and Ali Farrell is definitely spectacular with its array of memorable performances from well-known actors to some very small roles. Among the memorable small roles include Eamonn Walker as Will and Tony’s superior, Michael Chernus as Kelly’s fiancee Alan, Jahmir Duran-Abreau as Olivia’s son Matt, Jeremy Strong as a returning soldier, Fiona Dourif as the returning soldier’s wife, Lindsay Michelle Nader and Merritt Weaver as a couple of girls Will and Tony go out with, and Lisa Joyce as a bartender Tony sleeps with. In the roles of families giving notice, there are memorable appearances from Yaya DaCosta as a girlfriend, Kevin Hagan and Marceline Hugot as an old couple Will meets at a market, Halley Feiffer as a young woman carrying a secret about her boyfriend, and Peter Friedman as that girl’s father.

Steve Buscemi is phenomenal as an angry father who gets a notice. Though it’s a small role, Buscemi’s presence and performance is truly mesmerizing as he channels the anger of a man who just encountered loss as it’s a great performance from the always enjoyable Buscemi. Jena Malone is superb in a small but crucial role as Kelly, Will’s ex-girlfriend. Malone brings a lot of gravitas to a character that is in conflict for her love for Will but also the fact that she’s moved on. Even as there’s moments in her engagement party where she seems really uncomfortable as she could’ve gone over the top but restrains herself as it’s one of her finest performances.

Samantha Morton is amazing as Olivia, a widow who befriends Will as they find comfort in each other’s presence. Particularly the scene where Morton delivers a monologue about her husband as the sense of restraint in the performance as well as the mix of sadness and anger that is very startling. It’s a scene where Morton really shines as she delivers front and center throughout the film as it’s one of her best performances so far. Woody Harrelson is magnificent in his role as Captain Tony Stone. Harrelson brings a hardened exterior to his role of someone just wanting to do his job in a way where he doesn’t have to be emotional. By the time his character isn’t in his role as a soldier, Harrelson brings a fragility to his character that is having a hard time with his own war experience.

Finally, there’s Ben Foster in what is definitely a career-defining performance as Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery. Foster brings an intensity and dramatic weight to his role as a young man dealing with the aftermath of war and the sense of alienation upon his return home. Notably when he is trying to deal with Kelly’s engagement along with his new role as a messenger to families. Yet, Foster also brings some humor in his scenes with Woody Harrelson where they have some fun while he gets to be quiet and relaxed in his scenes with Samantha Morton. It’s a remarkable performance from the young actor who is surely going to be getting more attention in the years to come.

The Messenger is a haunting yet powerful film from Oren Moverman featuring an outstanding leading performance from Ben Foster. Audiences who want to see a war film without any political message or heavy-handed ideas about war will definitely see this as something more refreshing. While it’s not an easy film to watch due to its approach, it is a film that doesn’t go for conventions. Featuring incredible supporting performances and appearances from Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, and Steve Buscemi. It’s a film that is very real but also has poignant ideas about what families and soldiers go through with loss. In the end, The Messenger is a brilliant yet chilling film from Oren Moverman.

Oren Moverman Films: Rampart - (Time Out of Mind) - (The Dinner (2017 film))

© thevoid99 2011


Anonymous said...

Haven't seen this in a while, but I remember thinking this was such an amazingly well-written film with Ben Foster doing very well, and Woody just showing why he will always be that great actor that everybody knows, but doesn't actually believe he has the acting chops to be taken seriously. Also, who can forget that Steve Buscemi cameo? Good Review Steve!

thevoid99 said...

Thanks Dan. I always like Woody Harrelson. The dude can act whether its comedy or drama. He's just great.

The cameo by Steve Buscemi. Whoa. It was intense and I was frightened by how emotional he was. Buscemi rules. That's all there is needed to be said.