Monday, March 8, 2010

The Messenger

"The way you don't die, sir."

Upon returning home, a decorated soldier is assigned to notification detail to finish out his enlistment. As he struggles to make sense of watching people's live come apart, he clumsily tries to put his back together.

The Messenger was one of the silent contenders in the newly expanded Best Picture category of the Academy Awards this year. I say silent contender because it was pretty clear that, though the category had ten nominations, only five were really in the running. Still, I'm glad to see a movie like The Messenger get it's name said aloud- though as strong a film as it is, I wouldn't say it's the best movie of the year.

Alessandro Camon and Oren Movermen (who also directed) have crafted a story who's description brings to mind another movie that made a somewhat bigger splash this winter: Both movies juggle highly familiar story elements with new or inventive ways of approaching them.

"A war hero returns home to a life shattered by his time away; a life that he feels unable to reconnect with because of all the changes his time away has seen in him. And on top of that, he is plagued by all the claims that he even is a hero- because he certainly doesn't feel like one. His healing wounds on the outside betray his knitting emotional damage, damage he's not ready to admit he's taken." We've all seen that movie. But like Avatar (among many others) the story is familiar because it's poignant. We've had this talk before, remember? Yes we've seen it before, but we're willing to see it again if it's well done, and brings along with it something new.

The Messenger comes through on both counts with performances that are scathingly well done, and constructed from the ground up to convey the emotion purely. Ben Foster and Samantha Morton wear confliction as though it were high fashion as SSgt. Will Montgomery and Olivia Pitterson. Foster refuses to let 'brooding' take the place of 'searching', while Morton gladly lets go of sex appeal in favor of as human a performance as any could have given in her stead. The two wax and wane in waves; on and off, in and out, sure and confused. While Woody Harrelson harnesses his unique ability to make you wonder if it's not really him on the edge instead of Cpt. Stone.

Tied inextricably to the quality of the performances are the "notification" scenes themselves. Here is where the new comes for me. This is a practice that I (and probably many others) know little about the inner workings of- though much can be inferred. The Messenger handles these scenes with tact, respect, and powerful honesty. The players leave their egos off screen, generating intense and often uncomfortably raw performances. Some family members react with rage, some with a piteous and complete loss of control, and others are almost cordial. But no matter their reaction it is completely believable- and heart-breaking.

But as doleful as it may be, the film feels as though it loses it's way as it approaches it's finale. It's a loss of direction that I'm willing to deem forgivable, as the main characters are experiencing the same kind of skid. Even though this section of the movie seemed almost out of place, sitting in the theater I still never doubted the pacing- and that at the end of the tailspin we would understand why we lost control- and we did. This says a lot about the first half of the movie to me, that it managed to establish enough report with me as the watcher that I was willing to trust it when things seemed to loose bearing.

It's hard for me to come to any definite conclusions about The Messenger. In hindsight I am tempted remember it only as a bombardment of white hot emotion, but it was more than that. The comparison of the chaos of battle (though we never see it per say), and all that one can't plan for there in, to the like-wise fear of the unknown that the notifying team faces every time they approach a new door is more than smart, it's sincerely moving. Within the seething turmoil The Messenger brings to the table, there is a story of personal journey also. Not just for Montegomery, but for Pitterson and Stone.

This is a movie packed full of material to assimilate, and I think Movermen is aware of this as he's kept things like the soundtrack simple to compensate. The Messenger offers nothing but pitch perfect performances. There are moments where you will feel like you've seen the characters before, and I'm not going to tell you that your wrong. I will tell you however, that there are times that that's OK, and this is one of them.

Real Deal Recommends
3:10 to Yuma: One of many movies where Foster commands every second of screen time.
Enduring Love: A sadly under-seen film about obsession with Morton in the lead.
Natural Born Killers: Again, you'll wonder if it's not Harrelson that's crazy.

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