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THE MESSENGER, 2009
A soldier (Foster) struggles with an ethical dilemma when he becomes involved with a widow of a fallen officer (Morton).
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Every war movie, at its heart, is an anti-war movie. You just can't honestly show the cost of war without implicitly calling into question the nature of its existence.
Most of the time that cost is left to effects and make up and virtuoso display's of filmmaker talent as wave upon wave of would-be soldier's are eaten up in a faux-meat grinder. Like a well rehearsed civil war recreation, no matter how accurate these things are they're never quite real. There's a certain amount of thrill and chill involved with the actual battle sequences, no matter how horrible the filmmaker makes them, and it's hard for an average audience to take the right measure of pain out of it. There's just no personal experience with it.
Grief, on the other hand, everyone has experience with that, in fact if not in degree anyway. Even if you've never had a soldier turn up at your door to tell you your loved one has died in a far away land, you can imagine how it would make you feel. Multiply that by about 100 and you might begin to get a tenth of what the soldiers on notification detail go through.
Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), newly returned from Iraq after being injured in the field, is about to find that out first hand. Sent out with a slightly unhinged CO (an exceptional Woody Harrelson), he's replaced the stress of battle with something in many ways worse. The stress of waiting at a door to deliver horrible news, both hoping and dreading that the person they've come for isn't home.
War films, or anti-war films I should say, generally take on a similar set of plot and character points that you can count on. The main character is emotionally scared and repressing it, he's usually having some sort of trouble with his (ex-)girlfriend and is probably badly readjusting to civilian life.
"The Messenger" has all of that in spades, all though it must be said anything repeated so often must have some truth to it. Still, lots of repetition tends to be bad for drama and that's plenty true for "The Messenger." The performances are finely drawn enough that it's easy to maintain interest even as it works its way through fairly average paces, but it's hard to ultimately care on its own whether Will patches things up with his girlfriend or Tony (Harrelson) stays on the wagon. These are stand-ins for real drama, not drama themselves.
And that truth is never so evident as when Will and Tony actually go out on a notification assignment. All of the films ruminations on the nature of battle, on the crushed relationships and the inability of soldiers to return to civilian life, go right out the window as soon as they arrive on a doorstep. Watching the pair trying to break to a taciturn father (Steve Buscemi) or a pregnant fiancé the truth they've come to tell is beyond excruciating. Everything that ever needed to be said against war is plainly visible in those moments. They really are testaments to artistry and performance.
Inevitably, despite all the warnings against it (or maybe because of it) Will finds himself drawn to a notify-ee (Samantha Morton) whose world he has turned upside down, and through whom maybe he can find the parts of himself he's lost in war.
The plot isn't really important, though. "The Messenger" is a character study and as much as Foster's Will has populated most soldier-at-home films, it's completely made up for by Harrelson's Tony. Tony is Will in the future, if he's not careful, a man coming apart at the seams largely because of the duty he sticks with. He inhabits him enough that he doesn’t need much dialog to convey what Tony is feeling. The nervous body language, for instance, as he waits for a next of kin to answer a door tells you everything you need to know about the moment he's in.
"The Messenger" will never win a contest for most innovative or insightful war film, but it's performances are generally excellent through and through and the few moments or real pain it offers during the notification sequences are more than enough to make up for any of its faults.
'They should have every funeral televised,' Tony suggests at one point, to remind citizens-at-large the cost of the war the soldiers are fighting. They don't need to go that far; just a few moments with these soldiers on a notification detail says all that needs to be said. It's a rare film that can summon up that much power without going needlessly over the top. Even if the rest of "The Messenger" can't quite match those moments, it still needs to be seen.