Thursday, 8 March 2012

The Messenger

This is Oren Moverman’s directorial debut. His follow-up was the incendiary (and much recommended) Rampart, currently playing in cinemas.

Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is a war hero back in the USA following a tour of duty in Afghanistan. With battle scars - both mental and physical - and not long left to serve, he is given the unenviable task of notifying the next of kin that their nearest and dearest have been killed in combat. To do so he is teamed with Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) who lays down strict ground rules on dealing with the bereaved. Enter newly-widowed Olivia (Samantha Morton) who puts Will’s discipline to the test.

Dealing with the fallout from war is not the sexiest of subject matter – essentially war films that do not contain war. There is no actual combat within the film (which does work, mind). The war is dislocated from the ‘real world’ but impinges on everyone’s lives in the film. It brings to mind the likes of Coming Home, The Deer Hunter and underrated Dennis Hopper flick Tracks. (All, incidentally, set against a backdrop of the Vietnam War.) The conflict in Afghanistan is similarly controversial but times have changed a lot since then. For instance, the all-encompassing media of today threatens to do the two soldiers’ job for them. Therefore each notification of a death is dealt with as an emergency military situation. Also, the entire working population of the western world in this day and age appears to be always on the brink of being sued. So doing the job wrong poses a very serious risk. The mechanics of these military roles is fascinating. I was actually more interested by these aspects of the film than by Will’s relationship with Olivia, which is a full-on downer. Will’s relationship with Tony, however, is far more engaging. 

Compared to Rampart in which Moverman really found his directorial groove, this does feel like a first film. Moverman co-scripted with Alesandro Camon and the writing is a little flat at times with some scenes lacking the necessary bite. But it’s a film with a brain and some balls and offers a unique and challenging take on the current conflict.

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