Before the 2012 psycho cop drama Rampart (reviewed here) Oren Moverman debuted in the directors chair with the military drama, The Messenger.
Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) has returned home from a tour of duty in Iraq. He was seriously injured and has returned to the US to recuperate and see out the last few months of his enlistment. He is assigned to Casualty notification team alongside Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson). Having no background and no training in dealing with delivering bad news to relatives of soldiers, Will is severely conflicted. He feels that he can not perform the duties laid out before him. It doesn’t help that his personal life is a car wreck. His former girlfriend is getting married but still occasionally wants to sleep with him, he has trouble adjusting to life back home and is still in pain from his injuries. Throwing himself into the job, Will gets to grips with the unenviable task working as an ‘angel of death’. The first thing he learns is that every notification is different. No two people react the same. He experiences threats, violence and foul language. Unable to react to any of this as the notification team represent the Army, Will starts to take advice from Tony. He has a way of doing things that allow no room for variation. Read the prepared speech and under no circumstances touch the person are the two golden rules. Tony has his own issues. As a former alcoholic and serial womanizer the only thing keeping Tony together is his army career. On one notification Will has to inform Olivia (Samantha Morton) of her husband death. Something clicks for him. He is attracted to Olivia but for obvious reasons is reticent about taking it any further. He cannot get Olivia out of his thoughts and although it could be the worst thing he has ever done, Will is drawn to her.
Having only seen Ben Foster in non sympathetic roles in the past this was a nice change of pace. His performance is as intense as always but the character portrayal allows him to extend his range. You really sympathise with his torment. As support Woody Harrelson is his usual fantastic self. He is rapidly becoming one the best actors working in Hollywood today. His choice of roles both comedic and dramatic are always interesting and very memorable. His role in The Messenger is no different. He throws himself totally into the role and if were not for the strong performance from Ben Foster, he would have stolen the show. Most of the film this is a two hander. Not an easy thing to pull off so the strength of the two leads shines through.
Unlike the follow-up, Rampart, this film shows little in the way of stylistic visuals and sound design. The only nod to the sound is where it is used to represent the inner turmoil of Will. To drown out the thoughts he plays thrash metal (as the kids call it) at high volume. The direction is functional but not showy. It allows the story to be the main attraction and the movie benefits from this. To introduce stylised set ups would have detracted from the atmosphere created.
Overall an intense and engrossing film and a very good directorial debut. recommended