I’m in the midst of my end-of-the-year movie binge, where I force myself to only watch new movies (from 2009). The purpose of this rule is to trick myself into thinking I can possibly see a good portion of the releases in order to make a decently informed decision on what I consider ‘the best of the year’.
This is, of course, an impossible and improbable task. Two wholly different films really can’t be compared, solely based on the fact that they were released in the same year…unless that specific year has something to do with the comparison (which it usually doesn’t).
I guess I’m using the start of this post as a precursor to what I will attempt to write when I actually make my ‘best of list’. This year seems to have a lot of films that have, peripherally or directly, war as the subject. While there is unfortunately always a current, real-world antecedent war to compare any film to (We may think Avatar‘s anti-Western tendencies exploit the filmic legacy of Native Americans, but people across the world are filling in their own metaphorical blank), some films are about a specific (war)time and place in history. The Messenger is one such film.
I am sadly surprised that this film is not getting much attention this awards season. The Hurt Locker is a fine film in its own right, but this film seems like the perfect segue into continuing its story. Sergeant Montgomery (Ben Foster) comes home injured from post-surge Iraq to a new, domestic assignment, paired with a man who’s been at the job for quite awhile (Woody Harrelson); they are charged with the job of notifying next-of-kin that their soldier relative has just lost his or her life in service to their country. This is their mission and it is a difficult one to say the least. This is the first directed film for screenwriter Oren Moverman. He has assembled dare I say an amazingly great ensemble of actors who provide a glimpse into the possible anarchy of emotion that can result in such a life.
I’m not sure how or what to express here. I have no personal or familial experience with the armed services. I have no real world connection to the people who choose or simply end up finding themselves in this kind of life. Yet, as pure drama, I can appreciate the emotions of this film. Yes, the subject lends itself to exploitation. Yet, unlike some other films of this nature, it does not revel in its own confusion. We are not supposed to think the characters’ faults are some how redeemed by their heroism. We are not supposed to hypocritically revel in the action of the war, while decrying the situation that creates that action. This film accepts the situation of war and its inevitable result: loss. It asks us to feel for and think about those that literally accept a kind or personal responsibility for its situation, on behalf of a nation that makes it so. The two soldiers in this film are portrayed as people who come to find that they have lives to live that so many of their named comrades no longer do. These people are not symbols of something larger; they are individuals who, with whatever faults and broken pieces, are still alive to live. Guilt, relief, sadness, desire. All of this comes across in their faces without having the film have to point it out to us.
Ben Foster has always been an “intense” actor, he brings a subtlety to this that some of his other more histrionic roles suffer from. Woody Harrelson is increasingly becoming a solid character actor that displays a command of craft that I would not have expected. Steve Buscemi, in his minutes on screen, manages to convey the core of the film with a masterful simplicity. And Samantha Morton is, as always, simply amazing.
If you get a chance to see this film, I urge you to check this out.