White Tank Top on The Messenger

A movie review by Kirk Michael

I felt brave walking up The Varsity stairs to see The Messenger, having heard it was a tightly-wound, well-acted picture that told an important story (all claims that turned out to be true, by the way).  Everything was fine until I reached the theatre door and saw the film’s poster.  Right there, under the enticing names Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson and Samantha Morton, I saw “Jena Malone” and fell into a flashback of her epically bad Into the Wild voiceovers.  But, in the not-yet-heard words of Harrelson’s Capt. Stone, I grabbed a “double-handful of balls” and continued inside.  Luckily Malone and her crimped Cleopatra haircut (she is what the kids call a “friend with benefits” to Foster’s Sgt. Montgomery) appear and then quickly fade to the background so the film can really begin.

For the last three months of his tour, Montgomery is assigned to work with Stone on “bereavement notification” missions.  The baby-faced Foster and blockheaded Harrelson share a great meeting scene in the cafeteria, with both parties eating five words for every one that comes out (I’m going to guess that Woody now owns the award for Most Aggressive Watermelon Eating in Film).

The first time the pair approaches a front door to notify the next of kin for a dead soldier, director Oren Moverman shifts to a handheld camera shot from behind the protagonists.  Variations on this bumpy, unsettling scene recur throughout the film — and the viewer is a shaken third party on all these trips.  At the outset I sympathized with Stone and Montgomery as they are slapped, shoved and spit on, but, as the bereavement notifications piled up, the actions of the parents, wives and husbands of the dead soldiers felt more and more necessary.

The most neutral reaction to the worst news comes from Olivia, played by the always-beguiling Samantha Morton.  She floats through the film with a distracted numbness, one earbud often hanging down her chest.  Some of her dialogue highlights the only problem I had with the film — it tries to do too much at times.  In a crucial scene, she explains to Montgomery that one of her husband’s shirts “smelled of rage,” which is a metaphor beyond her character.  But she closes her speech with the much more realistic line that she needs to leave and pick up her son early from school (because he loves it when she does).  It’s one of the small, touching details that power The Messenger.

Still, the more interesting relationship is between the two veterans, who look great together slamming beers and displaying profane army tattoos under white tank tops.  Their friendship begins with almost shy, insomniac phone calls (from indistinguishable beige army apartments) and spreads into loud bars and bedrooms.  The more verbose Stone picks Montgomery so raw it seems cruel, but it’s only from that place that the younger man can share the revelation we’ve been waiting for all film.  Moverman mostly shows the men in obscure darkness or bright light, so that we squint along with the beleaguered characters through the subtle shifts of their male bonding.  The film explores differences I’d never considered, like how the Persian Gulf vet Stone could feel a strange mix of shame, envy and pride in the actions of Montgomery, coming off a decorated tour in Iraq.

In a contest of brutishness, the more human Harrelson (preening his eyebrows with a fork) probably deserves the Supporting Actor Oscar over Christoph Waltz’s showier, mincing Nazi in Inglourious Basterds, though the hype for the latter rivals that of Heath Ledger’s posthumous triumph. I am pleased that The Messenger will be represented at the Academy Awards though.  Of all the films I’ve seen from 2009, it does the most difficult job — taking soldiers’ deaths away from the brief glory of the battlefield and laying their bodies at the feet of American audiences.


Read more movie reviews by Kirk Michael on his personal blog, White Tank Top.