Knight at the Movies Archives
Oren Moverman's directorial debut is intense and moving
I’m not sure if co-writing scripts with queer directors Todd Haynes and Ira Sachs (for I’m Not There and Married Life, respectively) has
given Oren Moverman a fuller understanding of the male psyche but it sure hasn’t hurt. His directorial debut, The Messenger,
which he has again written in collaboration (this time with Alessandro Camon) is ostensibly the story of two mismatched Army soldiers
charged with the thankless job of delivering the news of fallen soldiers to loved ones.
But as the film progresses what emerges is something much more than just a movie about the terrible effects of war on those left
behind – though that would certainly be enough for a movie to deal with (and this one handles these scenes beautifully).
Moverman's debut gives us that and adds a complex portrait of two individuals who find each other at an important juncture in their
lives and against the odds build a deep friendship. The Messenger is a sobering drama that at its core is a heterosexual love story
between two men. To be clear, there’s no homoerotic undercurrent here but it’s a love story of opposites falling for each other
Ben Foster plays Will Montgomery, a wounded combat vet just returned stateside after nearly dying in Iraq. After a motel room tryst
with his ex-girlfriend (Jena Malone in a nicely shaded performance), Will is left to his own devices emotionally. With three months to
go he’s assigned to the Army’s Casualty Notification Service and paired up with Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) who’s been at the
desperately awful job too long. In order to wall himself off emotionally, Tony follows the rule book – no touching the survivors, no
softening of the news in order to give hope, etc. And Tony’s also an annoying hedonist whose know-it-all, world weary monologues
barely camouflage his loner status. Will, haunted and angered by his experience, just wants to get the damn job over with and
gritting his teeth, jumps into the horrible assignment.
The scenes in which the two men deliver their fateful edicts, knocking on the doors of strangers, like door to door Angels of Death,
are heart wrenching and deliver an emotional wallop each time that are harder and harder to bear as the film goes on (they
reminded me of scene in the profoundly sad but little seen Grace Is Gone in which John Cusack had the difficult task of telling his
daughters his wife had died in combat). Steve Buscemi, perhaps the screen’s most reliable character actor, again delivers a
memorable portrait of the father of a fallen soldier who lashes out at the two and later returns to offer an apology.
But it is Samantha Morton as Olivia who gets to Will – mainly because her reaction is unexpected and out of sorts with what he has
come to expect. Against his better judgment and the advice of Tony – with whom he is slowly and surprisingly building a friendship –
Will finds reasons to meet up with Olivia and a tentative relationship begins.
Moverman and Camon’s script is filled with great character details and he has cast his movie with actors who embody their roles and
register often in just a line of dialogue or two. He has drawn from Harrelson a tremendous performance. Harrelson’s stoner, crazy
as a loon parts are usually the ones I remember him from (Natural Born Killers, Wag the Dog, 2012, etc.) but when I look over his
resume it’s his lesser known portrayals that jump out (the affected gay dandy in The Walker, the bitter drunken tyrant in The Prize
Winner of Defiance, Ohio) and his work here as the tortured, lonely Tony is an outstanding addition to that gallery.
Foster first came to my attention (and I’m sure that of a lot of other gay male moviegoers) when he played the strapping winged
mutant in X Men: The Last Stand who rejects the serum that will strip him of his powers and instead, flies out over the crowd, declaring
himself proud to be a mutant (read: gay). He then registered in the homoerotic 3:10 to Yuma where his insane devotion to Russell
Crowe bordered on the, well, homoerotic and he played a great Renfield like character in the vampire flick 30 Days of Night. The
tightly wired actor (both physically and psychologically) brings a quiet intensity to his Will Montgomery but adds surprising shades
throughout the movie (a laugh when least expected, etc.). It’s one of those roles that put actors in a new, higher profile category
(like say, Ryan Gosling’s turn in Half Nelson) and hopefully will do the same for Foster.
Filled with unexpected character twists to offset its intense emotionalism, The Messenger is a rewarding indie that’s sure to also
elevate Moverman’s profile and don’t be surprised if it gets bandied about during awards season.
Expanded Edition of 11-18-09 Windy City Times KATM Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.
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