Carolina Cinemas is again on my Good Theatre list for being the only theatre in town that’s taken the risk to show The Messenger–not as flashy as The Hurt Locker (which is getting all the Oscar buzz this year), but an equally worthy, unforgettable drama about the realities of war.
Iraqi war hero, Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) has returned stateside with his injuries, both physical and psychological. All the embittered soldier wants to do is get out of the Army as quickly as possible. But he’s got three months on his tour of duty.
He gets assigned to the most difficult and least glorious unit of them all–it’s his job to go to the homes of the families of deceased soldiers and inform their designated next of kin of their death in combat. He’s the messenger no military family ever wants to see and the one whose starchy presence at the door reveals the message before he opens his mouth. Denial, rage, hysteria, violence–all the reactions you can possibly imagine–come from the families who receive such news. Especially memorable is an angry father, played by Steve Busemi in a rare, underplayed performance that captures the excruciating pain of unspoken grief in the few moments of two scenes.
But the messenger is not allowed to do anything but deliver the message. He can’t touch a family member, can’t offer anything but the scripted condolences. He must follow the rules to the letter or he risks his own emotional stability as well as the integrity of the Army’s rules.
Team leader of Montgomery’s 2-man unit is the experienced messenger, Capt. Tony Stone, played with brawling machismo and deep currents of self-loathing by Woody Harrelson. Inglourious Basterds’ bad guy Nazi, played by Christoph Waltz, is the predicted winner of the Oscar for best supporting actor. The truth is Harrelson’s is the much more accomplished performance. Villains, especially over the top parodies, are fun to play and are the most impressive to audiences. It’s much harder however, to play a realistic bad guy who down deep is a good guy whose soul is decomposing.
Stone, the veteran who saw little combat and is a fragile recovering alcoholic and Montgomery, the younger, war weary cynic, hate one another. Though in time, they, like the audience, get to know one another and a budging respect happens. But don’t think this is a buddy movie. It’s not that shallow. Realism is the operating word of this low-budget gem.
When the men arrive at the home of Olivia Pitterson (the wonderful Samantha Morton), she reacts stoically to the news. She even praises the men on the difficulty of their jobs. She’s shocked of course, but the news was not totally unexpected, nor completely unwelcome. Her husband was so mentally battle-scarred that he had made their life at home a living hell. Long ago she had lost the man she had originally married. Her grief is mixed with guilt, for it was with relief that she said goodbye to him the last time he deployed.
Struck by her graciousness, Montgomery breaks the rules and sees her after hours. A tentative romance develops, one tiny, bittersweet moment at a time. As a military wife with more experience with PTSD than I care to remember, I can assure you that Morton’s performance is one of the most painful, most lovely, most accurate portrayals of what military wives go through than any other recent movie has ever dramatized.
The closer Montgomery gets to Olivia and the possibility of redemption, the closer Stone comes to his demons and the monster of melt-down. The criss-crossing of the men’s stories, and what both stories reveal about the wages of war, is one that can’t easily be forgotten. It takes a bit of bravery to see this movie, which is perhaps why it has remained under the radar for so long.
Though it’s a story about American soldiers, the director/co-writer is a former Israeli soldier, Oren Moverman, whose most mainstream film credit was as writer on the wonderfully strange 6-character Bob Dylan biopic, I’m Not There. The other co-writer is a relative newcomer Allesandro Camon, an Italian. Perhaps it takes outsiders to achieve an intimate yet unsentimental look at the costs American families pay to keep our soldiers in the field.