Movies about the Iraq War have basically been duds at the box office. Even The Hurt Locker did poorly when it came to bringing in the big bucks. The Messenger followed that tradition by making about $1 million in its U.S. theatrical release. Despite the overall yawn from the crowds, The Messenger is worth a look if you’re in the right mood.
War is obviously hell. Be it the Civil War, WWII, Vietnam, or Iraq, it sucks to fight and kill and die. However, while the battlefield deaths and mayhem are the worst part of it, it’s only slightly preferable, apparently, to being a Causality Notification Officer. They are the ones who deliver the bad news that someone has been killed in battle (or from falling into a ditch) to the next-of-kin back home. The message delivered by the protagonists in The Messenger are these death notifications for the war in Iraq.
Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is an injured hero back in the states with a few months remaining in his enlistment. He’s assigned, against his inclination, to be a Notification Officer, working with a veteran of the unit, Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson). The two go out and tell wives, fathers, mothers, and children that someone is not going to be coming home. Will is tutored by Tony to follow specific edicts on what to say and do and, more importantly, what not to say and do. As Will has been jilted by a girlfriend (Jena Malone) who didn’t wait for him while he was overseas, he and Tony spend evenings together in a bar, talking about life and the military while Tony tries to stay on the wagon and Will forgets what happened in Iraq by downing whiskey at an alarming rate.
The filmmakers, including first-time director/co-writer Oren Moverman, state in some of the extras that this isn’t a political film, but it has anti-war written all over it. However, it’s the type of anti-war movie that avoids shoving tiresome speeches into the mouths of characters standing in for the writer. Instead, Moverman and his co-writer, Alessandro Camon, make the anti-war case by showing the effects of war death on the home front. This is a human film in which characters in difficult situations behave not like characters but like actual people. It’s a refreshing change.
A movie like this, with a $6 million budget and a hand-held documentary feel, lives and dies on the work of its actors, and The Messenger boasts two performances that deserve to be noticed. Foster, who was great in both Alpha Dog and 3:10 to Yuma, never overplays the wounded soldier coming home to nothing; he just puts the right mix of loneliness, anger, and desire for connection into each scene. Harrelson has the easier work, since his character gets more good lines and is the sort of good-natured hard-ass people like to see on screen. He does everything he can with it, though, and his Best Supporting Actor nomination is well deserved.
The movie often zigs when you think it will zag. A possible romance between Will and a war widow he delivers notification to (Samantha Morton) doesn’t follow usual conventions, and Morton is so low key she’s almost invisible at times, but that works with the character. Each notification, from the one provided to Steve Buscemi as an angry father, to one given to Halley Feiffer, who married her now-dead husband only days before he shipped out, are poignant but not overly dramatized. They have a realistic feel. When the two men in dress uniforms show up in an Army-heavy neighborhood, a line of women press up against a playground fence, wondering who will get the news this time. Harrelson’s Stone notes quietly, “At least it’s not Christmas.”
There is plenty of humor, both black and otherwise, to cut the tension. That and the outstanding performances, combined with the lack of strident speech-making, makes this an Iraq War movie worth pushing to the head of the class. It can be tough to watch, as the notifications are not easy on the soul, but it’s worth the effort.
Everything about The Messenger screams low budget. First off, the budget is low. The shooting was done quickly, and the look of the film has a very indie feel. Despite this and its complete lack of success at the box office, the producers have decided to put enough on the DVD to make it worth checking out. Other producers and studios should take note.
First off, there is a commentary that not only includes writer/director Moverman and producer Lawrence Inglee, who you’ve likely never heard of, but the two stars of the movie, Foster and Harrelson. That’s freakin’ awesome. This is an actor-centric movie, and the two main actors sit around and talk about acting in it. I can’t explain how great that is. Especially with this movie, where there was a lot of ad-libbing, and the notifications were apparently done with no rehearsal and Foster and Harrelson unaware of how the people would receive their news. There is a little dead space, but overall it’s a good commentary.
The commentary is supplemented by two other extras: a making-of featurette and a Q&A from some film festival. “Going Home: Reflections From the Set” has the standard interview set-up but seems more willing to talk about meat and potatoes, instead of just being a glorified ad for the movie. Everyone talks about the script and the actors like they are the best things since sliced bread covered in $100 bills, but they are also willing to talk about the politics of the film and other issues that movie featurettes like to pretend don’t exist. You also hear about the amount of cooperation the Army gave to the filmmakers. A lot, apparently. The Q&A might be from Sundance, based on the attire, but features the same people as the commentary, with the addition of co-writer Camon and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski. The questions are actually not too puffy and get the group talking in an interesting and insightful manner about their movie.
The final major extra is a short documentary film called Notification, which is almost a companion piece to The Messenger. This is the true-life version of the fiction, featuring interviews with Causality Notification Officers and those who have been notified. It’s very “documentary looking” and also very emotional to watch, as is the main film. Still, if this is something that catches your interest, it’s very well done.
The other item, in addition to previews, is a copy of the script that you can view on your computer. I was very impressed with this presentation and wish other low-budget DVD providers would adopt the idea that a few extras go a long way. Even though my politics are not the politics of those involved in this movie, I can’t argue with a thing well done, and this whole project, both the movie itself and the DVD, are very well done.