The Messenger: presents a Memorial Day tale many Americans should see

The Messenger – 2009

Directed by Oren Moverman

Starring Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, Steve Buscemi, Yaya DaCosta

Written by Moverman and Alassandro Camon

The Messenger starts out with a deception.  Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Foster) meets up with an old flame, Kelly (Malone).  After they have adult situations and then go to dinner, they talk about the story she told her boyfriend so that she could come to see him.  After a few words back and forth, he tells her:

“You always did know how to lie.”

Later, in a bar, with his new Captain, Tony Stone, he starts to tell him about her.  Before he can get a few words out, Stone (played in his easy, affable strength by Harrelson) lays out for him the exact situation that Montgomery finds himself in.  The girl wanted him to commit.  He didn’t.  She moved on.  He is lost and serving our country.  Such is the cycle those who serve can find themselves in.

Montgomery, who has been injured in his service in Iraq, has come home early for physical therapy and to serve out the rest of his time.  He is assigned to Stone in the service of notifying the first of kin of the dead.  Stone is hardened to the task, giving him the rundown before each encounter: what to expect, how to respond and, more importantly, how not to respond.  Montgomery bristles latently to this information.  This is not how he wanted to spend his last months in the service.  He spends his nights raging with loud music and darts thrown violently at the wall.

Captain Tony Stone: I know what you’re thinkin’. You’re thinkin’ shit, I’m a goddamn decorated war hero with three months left to serve, and they draft me into the angels-of-death squadron. I get a beeper, a canned speech, and a lunatic commanding officer to serve a fuckin’ ocean of grief. Am I right?
Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery: More or less, sir. Am I right?

This is, next to coroner, about as close as one can arrive to a thankless job.  There are hints that he is battling with the value of his own life.  He is now required to give people the worst news possible to those who now realize that they have given it all away for their country.  I can only imagine the difficulty one must have embracing two ends of the same coin that takes everything, and asks for more.

Along the way, he encounters a woman, Olivia, soberly shown by Samantha Morton.  He breaks the news to her, her husband is gone.  There is something about her that draws him in, but his Captain warns against it.  He continues to watch after her, and eventually reaches the point of no return.  She backs away.  There is more passion between them than either has felt for a long time.  But, ironically, while her man is in no way able to do anything about it, the memory of the man she loved, not the man who left for his third tour, holds sway over her.  And her boy.  In exactly the opposite way as the relationship Montgomery has with his former girlfriend, this is a mess.

The message behind this film is a tough one to grasp.  Life is precious, especially in times of war.  Because of war, life is harder to live when you leave your friends behind.  The military has sent thousands of these types of messages in the history of this country.  They value the families of their dead, as much as they value the lives of their soldiers.   The protagonists wage a constant struggle to keep that value, while discarding the lives of our enemies.  No hardened positions are established on the purposes of war: who’s right or who’s wrong.  For this reason, this work is essential.

Ben Foster has an incredible task in this film, and he succeeds.  Showing much pain and too little pleasure, he marches on.  His performance received very little in the way of recognition compared to his co-stars here, but his performance is the key to the film.  He is not stoic, not valiant, not  a hero.  He is tortured, but brick by brick, he is building his life up from nothing.

Harrelson is commendable in his portrayal as Captain Stone.  He has never seen battle, served multiple tours, and tries to convince Montgomery constantly to extend his own time.  Playing a recovering alcoholic…there only ever seems to be one reason to mention that they are on the wagon.  Mercifully, he manages to push the clichés aside, presenting a full character without much in the way of doubts.  When they come, in flashes, he accepts them and moves on.

As grieving widow Olivia Pitterson, Morton is raw and real.  Looking every bit of her 34 years, she weathers through the collision of thoughts and emotions as earnest and exhausted.  No sense of glamor or prestige.  Life was already a labor for her, and she just adds the burden to her sack of woe.  Hers might be the best performance of the movie, but this detracts nothing from Harrelson and Foster.

For his part, Moverman employs no directorial tricks, while making sure all important details find their way to the film in the most subtle way.  He directs like a writer, which makes sense, given this is his first directing effort after a career of journalism and screenwriting.  His is a style that is easy to dismiss, but the points he is looking to take resonates after the credits have rolled.

I don’t profess to know much of the suffering of our enlisted heroes.  I have seen some of it, heard about others, and now I feel like I have lived it after watching this movie.  That said, I can never stop being open to hearing these stories.  While I am strongly opposed to war, except as a last resort, I cannot support those who live and die with honor to protect our way of life.

(**** out of *****)

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