Thursday, May 20, 2010


A terrible but necessary job

By Edward Copeland
While the 2009 best picture winner The Hurt Locker actually took place in the combat theater of Iraq, as is usually the case, the Academy missed the year's best film relating to Iraq, The Messenger. Having just caught up with the film on DVD, The Messenger may not have the nearly nonstop suspense that The Hurt Locker offered, but it more than makes up for it with a solid screenplay and well-defined characters that gives its fine cast a chance to shine and allows the viewer a chance to become involved on a deeper level than just edge-of-your-seat tension.

Ben Foster stars as Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery, an Iraq War veteran whose somewhat minor combat injuries and heroic status for his actions in combat have earned him a job in the military's casualty notification service. Will doesn't see this as an honor at first, especially under the guidance of the his rough-around-the-edges partner in the role, Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson, who earned a well-deserved supporting actor Oscar nomination).

Foster, who has been acting since he was a child, gives a great performance here. He always seems to excel when he's given good material and sometimes even when he gets so-so material such as Alpha Dog, but at other times seems at sea as in his role in the terribly inconsistent HBO series Six Feet Under or X-Men: The Last Stand.

Directed by Oren Moverman who co-wrote the script with Alessandro Camon, The Messenger had the risk of becoming a series of vignettes as Will and Tony notify family after family about the death of a loved one, but each instance is beautifully drawn and distinct from the others, especially one that offers a great cameo by Steve Buscemi. It also breaks up what could become monotonous by showing Will and Tony off the job, tentatively getting to know each other, hanging out and trying to pick up women to mend their individually broken hearts.

Will breaks the rules on this part by taking an interest in one of the widows they notify (the always good Samantha Morton), but The Messenger proves smart on this level as well by not going down any of the paths you would expect this sort of plot to follow.

Moverman's direction never distracts from the human stories at its core, yet manages to make every scene so compelling that there's never a risk of boredom setting in for the viewer.

Here we are, with 2010 halfway over, and I'm still discovering great 2009 films and I can say from experiencing, this does not happen with most film years, but even though I didn't get to see The Messenger until May 2010, it's definitely one of 2009's best.

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Samantha Morton made this movie for me, though that's not to suggest that Foster and Harrelson aren't good too. I love the scene between Morton and Foster in the kitchen, and the scene in the bar when Foster knowingly and uncomfortably chuckles while eavesdropping on that soldier's grisly tales of combat that alienate him from his friends.

This movie is slipping from memory a bit, but I recall feeling a little let down by the final act, when the characters seemed to diverge from the carefully defined people they were before into something a bit more generic. Still a very solid film, however.
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