Starring: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone
Directed By: Oren Moverman
Written By: Alessandro Camon, Oren Moverman
The Messenger is a war story where we actually don’t see any combat. It centers on a terrifying aspect that still deals with the death of soldiers. The film shows us the aftermath of soldier’s deaths during combat, what it is like for those who have to break the news to the families of the now deceased. It depicts the hardships in this for both sides as well as the decency that you must treat people with despite what your orders are.
Will Montgomery (Foster) is nearly done serving his time in the army. He only has 3 months left. For those remaining 3 months he has been assigned to assist Tony Stone (Harrelson) in breaking the news of soldiers’ deaths to their next of kin. Tony trains him to only tell the next of kin and no one else, to leave and come back if they are not there, never wait, and to never touch the family member you are delivering the message to. There is a script that they have to follow; it is all business. Will has to keep a beeper on him at all times. Anytime that goes off he has to stop whatever he is doing and deliver the message of another death to another loving family member.
Will wants to prove himself, that he is capable of doing this and removing feeling. He has someone attack him, wish that he was the one that died, and shriek in horror. He does well with this for awhile. Will and Tony end up spending a lot of time together. It is clear they don’t see eye to eye on everything, but neither of them have very many friends. Will is still trying to get back the one who got away, Kelly (Malone). They have known and been with each other for their entire lives. When Will enlisted in the military, he told her that she was free to see others since he didn’t want her to be alone. Now she is engaged to someone else and although they are still friends, they aren’t nearly as close as they used to be.
When Will delivers the news of the death of her husband to the newly widowed, Olivia (Morton), he feels that there is more he should say but can’t. Will begins following her one day at the mall, where he stands up for her against army recruiters. When he sees her taking the bus he takes her home and does some work on her car. Will ends up spending a lot of time with both Olivia and her son. Olivia really wasn’t in love with her husband, but she is still grieving despite the connection she feels towards Will.
I was really impressed with Ben Foster’s performance. He plays a very lonely and mixed up character, which Foster illustrates with great passion. Foster and Samantha Morton had great chemistry together. It was clear that both were shattered in their own ways, but the moments they were together, they came closer to feeling better than they had in a long time. Woody Harrelson played an unemotional, stern man that more often than not was morally questionable. The differentiation in his and Foster’s characters worked really well off of each other. They were an odd pair, but the different perspectives they brought is what gave the story a lot of its’ drive.
Samantha Morton did very well as the sad, angered, and confused widow. There was a really down to earth quality about her. She did well with remaining reserved enough while still showing the wide range of emotions she was going through. She preferred it when her husband wasn’t around, but hearing that he was dead and would never come back again really took a toll on her. Jena Malone was charming as always. She had a supporting role, but it would have been great to see more of her in the film.
The film really hits on the need for emotion and decency towards all humankind. When you are in the army you are trained to be an emotionless, killing machine. When you are always surrounded by so much death, loss, and suffering you can only do that for so long. Will gets to a point where he can’t stand treating people like they aren’t people anymore.
One of the most powerful scenes in the film is when Olivia is at the mall buying something for her husband’s funeral. She sees a group of army recruiters convincing young boys to enlist. She completely freaks out about this, seeing it as tricking these boys in to volunteering for their own death. There is a lot of emotion and this is the point where she can’t take being numb and letting others die like her husband did. She tells Will that she wasn’t in love with her husband when he was last home. The war changed him in to something that she couldn’t love, someone that wasn’t particularly kind even to his own family anymore.
Tony is trying to persuade Will in to re-enlisting. He tells him that once you have been in the military you aren’t the same. You can never go back to a normal life. The Messenger deals with some essential themes of military films, but it doesn’t define itself by them. It is character driven and an examination of relationships in a lonely and solemn environment.