Sunday, November 22, 2009

Casualties of War: The Messenger

Enough movies have been made about or around the Iraq War at this point that either we are narrowing in on the specific psychological effects of this military engagement or we are already settling for movie-manufactured stereotypes. I don’t pretend to know the truth. What I do know is that the two soldiers at the center of The Messenger – not to mention other soldiers briefly glimpsed or merely mentioned in this film – have a lot in common with soldiers of The Hurt Locker, Stop-Loss, Battle for Haditha, In the Valley of Elah and, to jump back a war, even Jarhead. On display in Oren Moverman’s film, cowritten with Alessandro Camon, are soldiers who struggle both with the guilt of the horrors they have seen (if they fought and lived to tell about it) and the horrors they haven’t (if they avoided combat). We see men suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and from a general inability to adjust to the casualness of civilian life after months or years of adrenaline-fueled survival. We see men who manage their emotions and release pent up testosterone by abusing alcohol or engaging in promiscuous sex, fistfights or good-natured horseplay. Perhaps this is what we should see. Perhaps this is accurate. For the moment, however, it feels tiresomely familiar, which is why I suspect that The Messenger will play better 15 years from now than it does today. We need time to be able to see this film with fresh eyes. And maybe by then we’ll also have a better sense of what’s real and what’s cliché.

Don’t misunderstand me: The Messenger isn’t all retread. Telling the story of two soldiers assigned the awful task of knocking on doors and extending death notices to fallen soldiers’ next of kin, Moverman’s film provides a perspective that is both unique and universal. In no other film I can think of do we witness the grief and heartache of war from the experiences of those delivering the bad news. Moverman’s film doesn’t shy away from the intense reactions of the next of kin – those learning that their son, husband or daughter was killed in action – but he doesn’t exploit it either because their reactions are only half the story. Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski’s camera often leaves the most significant devastation just out of sight, focusing instead on the faces of Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) and Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) as they recite their dispiriting script: “The Secretary of the Army regrets to inform you …” The Messenger is specifically about the harrowing job of delivering death notices just as The Hurt Locker is about working on an Explosive Ordinance Disposal team. And yet Montgomery and Stone are also surrogates, standing in for the so many of us who feel personally removed from the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan while remaining ever conscious of how many American families are intimately connected. Without clearly understood criteria for victory, the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are, for most of us, as indefinite as the timetable for withdrawal. The only thing that makes these wars tangible is the news of more American deaths or the sight of the walking wounded.

Will Montgomery is one of those wounded warriors. That’s how he drew his assignment. The scar under his left eye is the only visible sign of his trauma, but Foster’s restrained performance hints at damage beneath the surface. Montgomery’s vague but intimate relationship with his ex, played by Jena Malone, reveals a man who wants to emotionally connect but isn’t up to it. Meanwhile, his approach to his new assignment shows his military-bred professionalism and also his compassion; he’s had loved ones die, too. Some people respond to survivor’s guilt by hating themselves. Others try to heal everyone around them. Montgomery does the latter. Though Snow implores him stick to the book (recite the script) and to keep to himself (no physical contact), Montgomery can’t bear it. When others are hurting around him, he puts himself in the line of fire. He dares to engage. Montgomery isn’t trying to be heroic. It’s a reflex. And soon enough, Snow – who has problems of his own, including alcoholism – is benefitting from Montgomery’s compassion, too. Their friendship is brotherly: sometimes antagonistic but respectful and deep. Few others understand what it's like to knock on someone’s door with the knowledge that you are about to permanently alter the worldview of the person on the other side. Montgomery and Snow are out of the war but sharing a foxhole. They need one another, and they know it. Moverman’s film is about their enriching camaraderie as much as it’s about the tragic reality of their jobs.

Harrelson’s performance is solid (he’s still at his best in outsized roles, as in Zombieland), and Foster’s suggests that, along with Ryan Gosling, he’s one of America’s most promising actors under the age of 30 (barely). But the film’s best performance is delivered by the unfailingly engaging Samantha Morton, who plays an Army wife turned into a widow when Montgomery and Snow show up in her front yard. A sexy – or at least sexual – figure in movies like In America, Code 46 and even Synecdoche, New York, here Morton is inward, hesitant and awkward. The last thing she’s looking for is a romantic connection, which is key because it underlines that Montgomery’s developing attraction to Morton’s character isn’t because of what’s on the surface but because of something underneath. He sees her need to connect with someone who understands what it’s like to have a husband killed by a war long before he actually loses his life. Likewise, Montgomery needs to share a commonly understood universe, because the real world is still too abnormally normal for him. Watson and Morton’s scenes together, often shot in long patient takes, are tender and intimate. Like the characters at the center of Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love, what they share brings them together and keeps them apart.

For a movie that is sometimes this rich, it’s a shame that it wanders into such predictable territory, falling back on drunken antics, an inappropriate wedding toast and a tearful confession. The final act feels by-the-numbers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. For the moment The Messenger suffers from poor timing, arriving late to a party at which other Iraq War films are dressed in the same antics and emotions. Over time, however, the films we remember will be the ones that wear these characteristics best, not the ones that wear them first, and there’s one scene that convinces me that The Messenger has staying power. In it, a young soldier, just back from his tour, entertains a table of friends with his combat stories. The mood is surprisingly light until the soldier, without even realizing it, punctuates his tale by describing the grisly death of one of the characters of his anecdote. In the confused expressions of the people at the table and in the knowing look of Montgomery, listening in from the bar, the chasm between those who have been engaged in this war and those who haven’t is perfectly articulated. Crossing the gulf one way can happen in one devastating instant, The Messenger makes clear. Getting back takes longer.


The Film Doctor said...

I have seen other critics raving about The Messenger, so your thoughts sound more balanced in comparison. Given the subject matter of the film, I was wondering how it could avoid being maudlin or melodramatic. Wouldn't so much grief begin to weigh down the film after awhile? As you said, the film's emphasis on the soldiers probably helped.

BTW, thanks for the links.

Jason Bellamy said...

FilmDr: Always happy to link to great content!

I'm glad I saw The Messenger, but it's certainly the kind of movie that's ripe for overhype this time of year when you consider the subject matter and the two leads who are just the kinds of guys that all the Oscar horserace people want to get behind -- one young and about to break through, the other familiar and enjoying a comeback year.