Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Messenger

Opening with a series of rules that will predictably all be broken in the emotional downward spiral of the American soldiers at its center, The Messenger quickly establishes itself as self-important "issue" filmmaking with an original hook and not much else to contribute to the conversation. It's understated enough, for the most part, to go down easy (assuming you're swallowing it as a liberal arthouse moviegoer) and is buoyed by a pair of strong - albeit inappropriately cast - performances.

The dynamic duo we're following here is Captain Tony Stone and Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, the latter taking up an apprenticeship with his elder superior officer in the duties of the Casualty Notification service following a nasty and near-fatal tour of duty in Iraq. Together the odd couple - one a wise-cracking recovering (for now) alcoholic and his ward a grizzled shell of a young man unable (for now) to feel emotion since coming home - go wandering around a small Anytown, USA informing mothers, fathers and wives that their loved ones have just been killed in action. Presumably this is an Army town, but there isn’t much detail given: there’s a bar and a base within driving distance of each other and recruiters are working the teenagers at the mall.

Where it goes from there is, sadly, the stuff of already-tired Iraq War cliches and some particularly bad writing.

Along with the machismo rules about crying and drinking (in the beginning, Stone is drinking O'Doul's as Montgomery takes prescription eye-drops – very symbolic), a strict MO is laid out for their professional mission. There is a tight script that must be followed to the letter with no breathing room allotted for tact. Touching a Next-Of-Kin is strictly forbidden unless they collapse from a heart attack - although Montgomery is chastised later in the game for physically supporting a man that has just vomited all over the place.

What makes the movie watchable are the two men playing the two stereotypes, Woody Harrleson and Ben Foster. They keep the movie afloat, but Harrleson and Foster are scenery-chewing character actors heretofore best in supporting roles. There's no doubt either can carry a movie; the problem is that Harrleson's expert pot-head jesting (admittedly hilarious here) and Foster's smoldering, sociopathic intensity consistently expose the movie around them as devoid of anything worth their time. They're having fun but they're playing with water pistols and it shows.

The best scenes in the film operate as self-contained vignettes, and these usually involve the notification duties that must be fulfilled before they can head to the bar and emote. Some great actors pop up in these for cameos - Steve Buscemi as a bereaved father, Halley Feiffer as a young army wife - but they only left me wanting more, and not in the good way. I wanted more for the actors.

The plot of the film, such as it is, tries to anchor itself to Montgomery’s flirtation with a widow played by Samantha Morton. The girl he left behind when he went overseas is getting married, so they have both lost somebody, but the depth of their surrogacy ends there. Theirs is a relationship of lustful glances and unpoetic, monosyllabic exchanges – it recalls the vampire-on-teenager relationship in the Twilight films, only with better actors.

Nothing is offered in contribution to the conversation about any of our wars. I honestly couldn’t remember whether Montgomery is said to have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan – I had to look it up in the press notes. The film has no interest in being relevant to our current situation. I suppose it’s aiming at timelessness but ends up dealing in War Movie platitudes (“It’s like we got back from another planet”, “He didn’t smell like my husband, he smelled like rage.”) complete with a tearful final-act monologue about War being Hell. Yes, we know. What’s the point?

The Messenger is that frustrating film that takes a weighty, important issue and doctors it up in cliché. Watching it, I was made to feel with every involuntary eye-roll I was supporting our troops a little less. The troops deserve better than this. Fortunately, they got it when Harrleson went on The Colbert Report to plug the film and ended up shaving his head on a dare while Colbert harmonized with him in a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. If I was a veteran (and I suppose it’s worth noting that I’m not and perhaps have no idea what I’m talking about) this - like most of what Stephen Colbert does - would mean a lot more to me than any tired retread about alcoholic soldiers institutionalized by their demons.

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!

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