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The Messenger Delivers Outstanding Performances

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • Updated May 20, 2010
<i>The Messenger</i> Delivers Outstanding Performances

DVD Release Date:  May 18, 2010 
Theatrical Release Date:  November 13, 2009 (limited); November 20, 2009 (wider)
Rating:  R (for language and some sexual content/nudity)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  105 min.
Director:  Oren Moverman
Actors:  Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, Steve Buscemi

The Messenger, like the new film Up in the Air, is about the people who deliver bad news. In Air, George Clooney and Anna Kendrick play professional downsizers—people who are hired by companies to fly into town and deliver the bad news to employees who have been laid off. Clooney's character is tasked with showing Kendrick's character the ropes.

In The Messenger, Woody Harrelson plays Captain Tony Stone, a casualty notification expert who instructs Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) on the procedures for letting folks on the home front know that their loved ones have been killed overseas. Like Clooney's corporate downsizer in Up in the Air, Stone has a long-developed expertise in how to deliver difficult news in person, and he has been tasked with conveying that expertise to someone who's unfamiliar with how to handle the varying reactions among those who receive such news face-to-face.

Stone tells Montgomery that there are procedures that work and which demand rigid adherence. "Read the script. Stick to the script," he advises. "Avoid physical contact. In case you feel like offering a hug, don't. It'll only get you in trouble." And, more ominously, "Some of them have guns."

Montgomery appears to take the news in stride, but it's hard to know what's going on behind his eyes. We know from the film's early scenes that he's in a sexual relationship with a woman who's involved with someone else; that his music of choice is heavy metal; and that he's in the final three months of his military service. He doesn't own a computer and appears to prefer isolation to human friendship.

It's Stone who does nearly all of the talking between them as they travel to deliver the news to one family after another. We watch as a father, upon hearing of his son's death, verbally abuses them, spits in Montgomery's face, and shoves him in the back. A woman hangs laundry as the men deliver the news, but seems more concerned that her child might catch a glimpse of the military messengers. A man learns simultaneously that his daughter has married a man of whom he disapproves and that the man has been killed, causing the father to pivot from an angry outburst to a comforting hug as his daughter absorbs the information.

Although Montgomery appears detached from his duty as a notification officer and cool to Stone's instruction, he can't help but feel drawn toward Olivia (Samantha Morton), to whom they deliver news about her husband's death. Stone, sensing Montgomery's attraction to Olivia, asks, "Where are your morals, hero?" but Montgomery is encouraged by Olivia's response to his advances.

However, she's not quite ready for romance, as she makes clear when Montgomery moves at last to kiss her during an extended scene set in Olivia's kitchen. The movement between the two actors as they look at each other, hesitate, move closer then back away, is exceptionally well performed by Morton and Foster. It's also heartbreaking to see Montgomery come out of his shell with a woman who's just recently learned of her husband's death but, despite some degree of estrangement from her spouse, isn't ready for a new relationship.

Stone has his own battles to fight—chiefly with alcohol—and he's losing. Harrelson pulls off the transition from confident military superior to crumbling moral wreck. Like Montgomery, he has secrets that's he's been hiding too long, and his increasing preoccupation with sex and drinking can cover over his problems only so long.

The Messenger is a timely reminder of the costs of war on those who send their husbands, fathers and daughters to war, then never see them again. It also shows the toll such news takes on the men assigned to deliver the news of these deaths. Although the film can be grim and troubling, it also is rich and involving in showing a spectrum of human experience, without any whitewashing of the sometimes harsh realities of military life. Best of all, it includes an account of how something as simple yet glorious as a sunrise can lift our souls during their darkest moments.

The Messenger should not be missed, but after a couple of weeks in limited release, its prospects for expansion to more theaters appear to be slender. While Up in the Air made $79,000 per screen in its limited release at 15 theaters and is poised for a successful expansion to thousands of screens in the coming weeks, The Messenger pulled in only $1,610 per screen at 50 theaters in its fourth week of release. It will need all the help it can get to make its way into more theaters, where it can be seen by more people. Last week's citation of The Messenger by the National Board of Review as one of the year's 10 best films, and its nomination of Woody Harrelson's performance in the Best Supporting Actor category, can only help, but the film's fate will be largely determined by the upcoming Golden Globe and Oscar nominations.

If I had a vote, The Messenger would be one of the 10 nominees for Best Picture, and Foster, Morton and Harrelson would all receive acting nominations. The Messenger is that good. Seek it out.

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  • Language/Profanity:  Lord's name taken in vain; multiple "f" words and other foul language; Stone says a woman must be "banging someone" who's not her husband; Stone says of a woman that he could "sop her up with a biscuit."
  • Smoking/Drinking/Drugs:  Stone says he's a recovering alcoholic and has been sober for three years, but he drinks later in the film; drinking and driving.
  • Sex/Nudity:  A man and woman have sex; the woman is shown on top of the man from behind, and we see her breasts; Stone eyes a woman and says he'd "like to strap her on like a government issued gas mask"; rear male nudity and full-frontal female nudity; a woman tells a man she's pregnant, then that she was just joking; discussion of need for sex, and of brothels; man kisses a woman who wraps herself around him; a man and woman can hear another man and woman having sex.
  • Violence/Crime:  A man, upon hearing of his son's death, throws something at the notifying officer, then shoves him; Montgomery punches holes in a wall; Stone puts Montgomery against a wall, gripping his neck; punches are thrown, and facial bruises are visible in the next shot; Montgomery recounts a battle in which he saw a wounded soldier's face "flapping," and an IED explosion that blew parts of a soldier into Montgomery.
  • Marriage/Family:  Stone says he's been married three times, twice to the same woman.
  • Religion:  Stone describes the notification process as sacred, and Montgomery says he's not a religious man, to which Stone responds that they're "not God"; Stone says "one way or another, we're all God's children," and Montgomery responds, "It's all fortune cookies to me, sir"; a man asks for forgiveness; the religious nature of the current war is said to have resulted in less sex for the men fighting overseas.