Thursday, January 28, 2010

Shooting for Success: The Messenger

On February 2nd the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces its contenders for 2009‘s best film, a list traditionally with five selections now expanded to ten. Hopefully the change means there’s room for The Messenger, a stunning drama that has yet to open widely. After a limited release in November to qualify for the awards season, the distributor -- Oscilloscope Laboratories, brainchild of Beastie Boys rapper Adam Yauch -- seems to be slowly unveiling this exquisite cinematic examination of how war hits home. Literally.

A directorial debut by Oren Moverman, who co-wrote the script with Alessandro Camon, The Messenger follows two soldiers tasked with delivering the bad news to families whose loved ones have been killed by improvised explosive devices, car bombs and battles in faraway Iraq. Woody Harrelson, as a recovering alcoholic and Gulf War vet who has never experienced combat, already has been hardened by this awful job. Ben Foster’s ostensibly more sensitive protagonist is physically and emotionally wounded from a tour of duty in the Middle East. He’s drawn to a newly-minted widow and single parent named Olivia (Samantha Morton) as much by her pain as her beauty. They dance around a mutual attraction that’s inappropriate yet undeniable.

But the equally interesting pas de deux is between Harrelson’s Capt. Tony Stone and Foster’s Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery. Assigned to work together by the military’s Casualty Notification Office at Fort Dix in New Jersey, they rub each other the wrong way. The intensely quiet younger man, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, is alienated by his partner’s gregarious nature. A more serious disconnect surfaces as the duo begins knocking on doors to inform people that someone dear to them won’t be coming back alive. When a father (Steve Buscemi) learns of his son’s death, he targets the officers with unbridled fury. Elsewhere, a wife grows increasingly hysterical once she comprehends that her husband is gone forever. Another dad collapses on the floor and Montgomery bends to console him, despite Stone’s earlier instructions that comforting the bereaved is against the rules. Moverman did not ask his excellent actors to rehearse these scenes, so the improvisational spirit adds a potent realism to the proceedings.

Harrelson’s character first appears to be a happy-go-lucky jock but soon exposes a deeper, sadder side. Morton employs her usual brilliance in the role of a woman feeling guilty about how to mourn a spouse whose war-damaged psyche had decimated their marriage. Foster -- perhaps best known for playing Claire’s sexually confused art-student boyfriend on Six Feet Under -- is a revelation, as he grapples with memories from terrible overseas events.The performances are all nuanced in a genre that can so easily go over the top with sentimentality and world-views either patriotic or pacifist. The sole false note arrives about four-fifths of the way in, when Stone backslides during a day of drunken carousing with Montgomery. The latter lost soul humiliates his childhood sweetheart (Jena Malone) after the soused twosome crash her wedding to a civilian, an act that threatens to erode the empathy for him the film has spent almost two hours building.But the unnecessary sequence does not diminish this haunting tale otherwise told with restraint by Moverman, whose quirky resume ranges from service as a paratrooper in the Israeli Army to screenwriter for such indie fare as as I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’ intermittently compelling 2007 Bob Dylan biopic.

The current endeavor was recognized with two top prizes at February’s Berlin Film Festival. Stateside, the National Board of Review gave it top-ten status and a win for Harrelson. The Independent Spirit Awards, which takes place on March 5, has put the picture in the categories of best first feature, screenplay, supporting actress (Morton) and supporting actor (Harrelson). His fine work on this project also garnered nominations, but no triumphs, from the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild. If tapped for Oscar consideration, The Messenger may face an uphill struggle against possible hopefuls such as Avatar, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, Crazy Heart, Up in the Air, Invictus, A Serious Man and District 9. In particular, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker could be seen as the worthiest potential adversary because it powerfully addresses another aspect of the same armed conflict.

Stories related to Iraq (Redacted, In the Valley of Elah and Stop-Loss, among others) have not enjoyed significant box-office earnings in recent years. That, in turn, could swiftly relegate even a production blessed with glowing reviews and statuettes galore to DVD store shelves. If so, as many critics have suggested, the message might be that the public is indeed afflicted with compassion fatigue in the messy aftermath of 2003’s pre-emptive invasion.

--Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

No comments:

Post a Comment