Monday, May 17, 2010

The Messenger – Oren Moverman (2009)

“The Messenger” follows Staff Sgt. William Montgomery, a wounded vet, fresh from Iraq whose new commission is to notify the next of kin when a soldier is killed overseas. When his commanding officer, Col. Dorsett played by the criminally underused Eamonn Walker, tells him that he will be spending the last three months of his enlistment on this, it’s plain that the Sergeant does not want this job. But as the Colonel tells him, being on a notification team is as much an honor as serving in combat.

“This mission is not simply important,” explains Col. Dorsett. “It is sacred.”

It’s hard to say at first whether Sgt. Montgomery is insulted or intimidated by his new orders. I suspect it’s both. But he insists that he’s not the right man for the job because he knows nothing about grief counseling and doesn’t even believe in God.
That’s when Capt. Tony Stone, chimes in. Stone is played by Woody Harrelson who got an Oscar nod for this role.

“We’re just there for notification,” he simply tells the Sergeant. “Not God, not Heaven.”

As Capt. Stone spells out the rules and procedure for making the notifications, we listen in a state somewhere between shock and horror at just how detached Stone is. The rules include always using the words “died” or “killed” as opposed to “passed away.”

The primary rule is never touch the next of kin. Stone tells his new trainee, “You are representing the Secretary of the Army, not Will Montgomery. So in case you feel like offering a hug or something, don’t.”

The first notification shows us just how brutal this “sacred” mission is.

Through the course of the film, we see Sgt. Montgomery and Capt. Stone make 6 notifications. Every one plays out differently, but each is devastating in its own way.
Over the course of the film, the “Messengers” are slapped, spit on and called cowards.

When we first hear Capt. Stone’s rules for notifying the next of kin, they sound callous, but as the film progresses, we understand that his approach is kind in its own way because it’s quick and gets them out of the way fast so the mourning families whose hearts they have just broken can get the news quickly and cleanly. It’s like taking off a band-aid. It might seem gentle to pull it off slowly, but in truth, ripping it right off is less painful.

Capt. Stone wants to get out of the families’ way and make room for the people whose job it is to heal these wounds.

Of course, this is complicated when Sgt. Montgomery tells a woman, played by Academy Award Nominee Samantha Morton, one of our best character actors, that her husband was killed in Iraq, only to find himself drawn to her. A romance, of sorts, blossoms between the two. But the focus is not on their relationship as much as what it means for two people who are broken to come together.

Montgomery sees the new widow at the mall soon after, confronting two army recruiters who are talking two teenagers into enlisting. She’s in a fit of grief and rage as she yells at them, “There’s a sticker on my coffin that says, ‘remains un-viewable.’ Nice big tall boys like you, what’s left can fit inside a shoebox.”
“The Messenger” is a film about the psychological effects war leaves on our troops, their families and our country as a whole. It’s clear filmmaker Owen Moverman understands mental illness. When Montgomery tells Stone that he almost took his own life after the firefight that left him wounded, he understands that when people are suicidal, they are profoundly confused about their feelings.

Most people who are suicidal can’t logically deconstruct their own psyches. When Montgomery tells Stone why he wanted to kill himself, he says, “The whole ‘living’ thing just didn’t make sense anymore.”
“The Messenger” is the most powerful and engaging film yet to come out about the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“The Hurt Locker” may have gotten the Oscar, but if you really want to see the ugliness of war outside the battlefield, Moverman’s meditation on grief is a far superior film.

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