24 December 2009

Review: "The Messenger"

I will admit that I am not the biggest fan of Woody Harrelson, and my opinion is based almost entirely on his guest-starring role on Will & Grace. He is in two films that I love, No Country For Old Men and Natural Born Killers, but I would not say that he is the reason they are great. He has been garnering a considerable amount of praise for his performance in The Messenger, receiving nominations for Best Supporting Actor at the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild awards. It is a war film about the army's Casualty Notification unit, responsible for notifying the family members of fallen soldiers. The Messenger is the directorial debut of Oren Moverman, who has written six screenplays, including 2007's I'm Not There. The film is directed with an incredible amount of control. The director allows his actors to perform and allows them to bring the words to life. It is uncomfortable to watch, due to its subject, but The Messenger features a mesmerizing performance by Woody Harrelson, who, when on screen, is as captivating as I have ever seen him.

Harrelson plays Captain Tony Stone, an army veteran from the Gulf War has been assigned to the Casualty Nofication unit for an undisclosed amount of time. It is apparent that he has been doing it for a considerable length of time and he has understands the subtleties of the job. A young soldier, Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), was wounded in combat and has been assigned to the unit for the final three months of his service. Will is fighting a lot of demons, one of which is a former love (Jena Malone) who has fallen in love with another man. Tony has his own problems, including alcoholism, and it becomes very tense watching how their jobs affect them. The film takes a surprising turn when Tony and Will are sent to inform a young woman (Samantha Morton) that her husband has been killed. Will becomes very attracted to her and is soon finding himself become a part of her everyday life.

The Messenger only seems to skim the surface and does not fully develop its characters. We meet Tony and Will at a point in their lives and when the film ends we have learned bits of information about them, but not enough to feel satisfied. It is a very interesting film and it is shocking to see how families react to the devastating news. I did have trouble with one scene, involving Yaya DeCosta. I just could not believe her emotion and had trouble connecting to her. She has never really demonstrated any acting talent with her appearances on America's Next Top Model and Ugly Betty. Conversely, Steve Buscemi's role as a grieving father is powerful and provoking. The task of notifying families must be one of the toughest, and The Messenger does a decent job of depicting this. I usually love when film endings provoke questions, but in this case I felt that the film was leading in a certain direction and stopped just short of its goal.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

EDIT: I have learned, through Scott Feinberg's interview with Woody Harrelson, that the notification scenes were filmed with the two actors (Harrelson and Ben Foster) not knowing who they would find on the other side of the door (which reminds me of Mike Leigh's Vera Drake). I think that this adds a new dimension to the film, and makes me rethink my original interpretation.

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