THE MESSENGER movie review

by CJ Forrest
Even with 10 films being nominated for best picture at the Oscars this year, I can still say with absolute certainty that one film has been carelessly overlooked. Flying under the radar this year, The Messenger is a powerful war film that shows the casualties of war don’t just stop with a fallen soldier on the battlefield. For every fallen soldier there is a family back at home whose lives will be forever changed.
The Messenger follows the story of Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), a U.S. Army Staff Sergeant who returns home from Iraq and is assigned to the Army’s Casualty Notification Service for his final three months of service. He’s partnered with Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), and together it’s their job to notify soldier’s families, or more specifically their ‘Next Of Kin,’ that their loved ones have died in combat. The film is unique in that it doesn’t just focus on the tragedy of a soldier’s death but it goes beyond that and shows the tragedy that the soldier’s families must face.
You will not see a scene more intense or more heart-wrenching in any film than the scenes where Will and Tony have to face the families of the fallen soldiers. Not many films have ever really gone into great detail on this job in the military. Fortunately in the capable hands of first time director Oren Moverman this heroic job is given the justice it deserves.
Each family the officer’s encounter offers an entirely different situation for the soldier’s to face. Moverman’s very crafty in how he lets little details about the families slowly unravel as the scenes play out, usually ending in a tragic emotional payoff for the audience. Something as simple as a man’s shirt hanging on a clothesline in the background of one scene has huge implications for a tremendously emotional scene later in the film. Its attention to detail that sets apart the good films from the great ones. Everything should have a purpose, that’s why it’s in the movie after all.
What’s also great to see is that Moverman is an actor’s director. He’s not afraid to sit on a two shot for a few minutes and just let his actors go to work. Luckily for him he has two fine actors anchoring this movie. Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson put on an acting clinic here and I guarantee you won’t find any performance that feels as raw or natural as these. It was a real gift watching the long takes between Foster and Harrelson where they could really get into the skin of their characters.
Harrelson’s Tony is an old vet from operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield but he wasn’t allowed to go to Iraq or Afghanistan. Its clear Tony is bitter that the army wouldn’t let him fight in the new war. Foster’s Will is a war hero from Iraq who seems ashamed of the praise bestowed upon him. He’s come home to find he has no friends and family waiting for him, and he’s been put in a job he’s not exactly thrilled to be doing. There’s much more to both of their characters but I’m not spoiling any of the story here.
You might not know the name Ben Foster yet but he’s going to be a huge name in the next few years. I guarantee it. He’s already had some spectacular performances. Just watch him as Charlie Prince in 3:10 to Yuma. Also enough praise can’t be given to the supporting cast as well, like Samantha Morton, Eamonn Walker, and Steve Buscemi just to name a few.
An interesting fact I discovered is that the scenes between the soldiers and the families were not rehearsed. When Foster and Harrelson enter a family’s home in the movie, it’s actually the fist time any of the actors have met each other. Also the scenes with the families are shot in one long take with no cutting. This really adds a lot toward making the scenes feel gritty and raw.
Simply put, The Messenger doesn’t even have to set foot in a combat zone to walk out one of the best war pictures ever made. The story of the Army Casualty Notification Officer is fresh and truly touching. It brings light to possibly the most emotionally taxing job in the world. War is hell during combat, but war also leaves wounds well after the combat has ended. To see how a soldier’s death affects the lives of so many people well after they’re gone is a subject rarely shown with such heartfelt conviction as it is here. You haven’t seen any war film quite like The Messenger and you owe it to yourself to see this remarkable film.
Woody Harrelson has been nominated for Best Actor In A Supporting Roll for his performance in this movie. You can catch The Messenger March 12-18 at the 5 Points Theatre along with other Oscar worth films throughout March. For times and more info call 359-0047 or go to