The Messenger

The Messenger


Reviewed by: Adam Micklethwaite

The Messenger is a moving tale of friendship between two veterans of the Iraq war (Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson), united by the task of informing next of kin that their loved ones have been killed in action. It also spotlights the ethical dilemma and moral complications of a highly inappropriate love affair between one of the soldiers (Will Montgomery, played by Foster) and the widow of a dead soldier (Samantha Morton). Ably directed by first-timer Oren Movermann, this is a well-scripted piece with great performances from the leads, which oscillates deftly between the gentle comedy of a buddy movie and the tender drama of a forbidden love affair.

Will is a decorated Iraq war hero with only three months left on his tour of duty, who is assigned to work alongside recovering alcoholic Tony Stone (Harrelson) for the Casualty Notification Office. Viewers may be familiar with scenes of family and friends being forced to come to terms with the news of their loved ones’ death in combat but what makes The Messenger’s approach to its subject so unusual is that we see the devastation of this loss from the perspective of the officers themselves. The spotlight in this case is upon the bearers (rather than the receivers) of bad news, for whom the phrase ‘thankless task’ couldn’t be more apt.

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Once the two men have been introduced, and the natural antipathy between them established, the film begins to follow the officers on several of their assignments, wading through a range of emotional responses, ranging from disbelief to shock, to extreme sadness and, of course, explosive, nonsensical rage, inevitably directed at the messengers themselves.

There is no escaping the weightiness of the subject matter and Movermann treats it with the necessary respect, but he also shows evidence of a lighter touch, which helps to alleviate the pathos and prevents the film sliding into melodrama. Take, for example, Harrelson’s sublimely delivered response to the sight of a large group of women and children who are positioned just outside one of the houses they are about to visit: the two men glance nervously at one another before Harrelson declares wryly: "It could be worse (long pause); it could be Christmas."

Aside from the scenes which deal with the soldiers at work, the rest of the film is about the private life of Will, both in the context of his burgeoning friendship with Harrelson and his highly inappropriate but nevertheless very touching attraction-cum-emotional attachment to Samantha Morton’s widow. It goes without saying that a soldier falling for the widow to whom he has just delivered news of her husband’s death is a massive taboo, but The Messenger handles this potentially sticky premise adeptly, allowing things to happen at a believable pace and always being careful to maintain a strong sense of guilt between both participants.

Nevertheless, it is the friendship between Foster and Harrelson which provides the film’s main thrust, offering the best comedic moments (especially the scene in which the two of them, massively inebriated, crash the wedding of Foster’s ex-girlfriend) and also, arguably, its most emotionally charged scenes. Perhaps the most moving scene in the film is the exchange between the two men when they finally open up to one another about how the war has left its psychological mark upon each of them, finally acknowledging the depth of their internal scars. Harrelson is particularly impressive, not just for the convincing transformation of his character from hard-boiled sergeant to vulnerable, even sentimental individual, but also for the way in which he is able to embody the elements of comedy or drama (depending on the scene) so perceptively.

Overall, The Messenger is an intelligent and moving portrait of grief, love and loss which takes a very personal approach to the consequences of war, mixing warm observational comedy with compassionate drama, underpinned by excellent performances from the leads.

Reviewed on: 09 Mar 2009
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Two soldiers form a unique bond as they cope with their assignment with the Army Casualty Notification department.
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Director: Oren Moverman

Writer: Alessandro Camon, Oren Moverman

Starring: Ben Foster, Jena Malone, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Eamonn Walker, Peter Friedman, Gaius Charles, Halley Feiffer, Merritt Wever, Jeremy Strong

Year: 2009

Runtime: 105 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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