I realize this may sound like name-dropping, and I guess, technically, it is. But when I saw him fill up the screen with the character of Captain Tony Stone in THE MESSENGER, I realized his performance was a transformation. I think they call that acting. He acted the hard-ass role in recent films, but he took it over the top and did it with a smirk on his face. In contrast, THE MESSENGER is a serious film addressing serious issues. Director Oren Moverman is not subtle in making Woody present with the intensity of a Marlon Brando or Robert Duvall. Matter of fact, there are more than a couple references to APOCALYPSE NOW. Yet Harrelson embodies these familiar iconic martial edifices and pushes out from there.
Captain Tony Stone (Harrelson) has been assigned Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) as a partner in performing the duty of notifying the next of kin that their loved ones have been killed in action. Will is just back from Iraq, with emotional wounds more debilitating than the broken bones and compromised vision he received in battle. He is a man who left a life at home that did not want him back when he returned. This is not new ground, but THE MESSENGER avoids being derivative, thanks to Ben Foster’s ability to reach past the cliché “coming home” drama and pull us into the character’s damaged soul. He has suffered and bled, and the military machine that put him in harm’s way now treats him like a damaged weapon. For the remaining three months of his service he will be knocking on doors delivering the worst news people will likely ever hear. It was either the most thoughtless assignment for him or the very best. That, however, was not a consideration when he was assigned.
The job brings its challenges. Each contact is different. No two people react exactly the same. In a devastatingly apt cameo, Steve Buscemi plays a father on the receiving end of a visit. His grief-driven rage turns toward the messengers, and that shakes Will to his very core. But he does not run. He takes it. These scenes are so well rendered that we feel we can’t turn away—more out of respect than shock.
As the characters develop, we see how the two messengers compare and contrast. When they have to deliver the news to Olivia, an unremarkable army wife played perfectly by the usually ravishing Samantha Morton, Will is moved by her stayed and controlled reaction. She even shakes their hands and tells them she knows how hard this must be for them. Will is drawn into her life one cautious inch at a time. There is a connection that is more than the emotional Velcro that can make grieving people stick to each other. It is the most genuine connection he has made with the world since he has returned.
In modern movies we have had our cinematic experience whittled down to two-second chunks. In THE MESSENGER, several long scenes are done in one shot. For many it feels uncomfortably voyeuristic to watch something unfold in real time without looking away. We are so used to turning away. Rapid cuts between scenes raises adrenalin, not awareness. A continuous thread makes it more like real life. We are in the room watching two men communicate deeply without using direct words. We are the TV watching them. But it doesn’t become uncomfortable. It becomes a bit of a gift to travel with them, to feel the truth as they do. When Will and Olivia find themselves in a place where they have to choose what happens next, the viewer is sitting in the same kitchen watching two people try to do the right thing, because these characters are the type of people who want to do the right thing. And we love them for it. Because we all know what it feels like to love someone that way.
Harrelson’s character, Tony Stone, lets his addictions be his moral compass. He is an asshole and knows it. He revels in it. It’s better than feeling his pain. He’s warned Will not to touch the next of kin. His emotional detachment from them and their grief only serves to feed his addiction. He is enraged when Will engages with the bereaved—attending to their needs rather than the rulebook. Stone’s anger at Will really lets Harrelson fill the room.
THE MESSENGER is a complex movie rendered masterfully, making it accessible to even the least militarily inclined. Anyone can see that this film is about healing. There are many people coming back to our community who have served in the desert and have seen things that make them different people. This movie is a messenger from the future to tell us, and them, we can mend from this war.
This all may sound like THE MESSENGER is a heavy movie. Well, it is. Good cinema is often not easy. Then again, this is the time of year for nauseating music and the mercenary manipulation to spend. It is a great time for a movie of substance. THE MESSENGER is the perfect antidote for holiday cynicism. THE MESSENGER starts Wednesday, November 25th—roughly 30 shopping days before Christmas.