Friday, February 5, 2010



The similarities between Kathryn Bigelow’s HURT LOCKER and Oren Moverman’s THE MESSENGER are perplexing. Jeremy Renner and Ben Foster (the leading roles in both films) look pretty much the same at a distance. They are both named William. Both are tow-headed young men who like heavy metal and hard drinking. Lastly, the muted emotional notes presented by both protagonists trying to keep a lid on their own personal holocausts seem pulled from the same template. The stories work in tandem so well that viewing them both would work on double-feature night. Lamentably, the preachiness of THE MESSENGER comes across as a color-by-numbers, cliché presentation of emotional suffering rather than something substantial.

THE MESSENGER starts with a wounded Sergeant named Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) looking into the lights over his hospital bed. There is a scar under his eye, and the camera makes sure that we see his war injury. It is no mistake that these hospital lights are reminiscent of ceiling fans or that the clanging guitar notes in the background are reminiscent of Jim Morrison’s THE END, all elements of Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW.

The comparison of the war in Iraq to Vietnam is made multiple times in THE MESSENGER. However, as Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) mentions, at least there was sex in Vietnam. As he point out, these soldiers in Iraq have no brothel to go to and “all of the religious bullshit, the crusades and jihad and nobody getting laid! I mean that right there is half the reason why everybody’s so angry!”

The Captain Stone way of looking at life provides a serious spine to this film. Sexual dysfunction of soldiers is a running theme. Captain Stone’s driving force seems to be sexual. He spends his time at the bar as a recovering alcoholic, drinking hot water and tea with lemon while ogling the barmaid.

Will’s problem is a little more complex. He has a strange sexual hook-up with his soon-to-be-married ex-girlfriend Kelly (Jenna Malone) but isn’t ready to commit to anything. Kelly’s tryst with Will has to do with checking the pulse of their old relationship. The scenes that Kelly and Will share together are so painfully incompetent on a social level it is a wonder that they ever functioned as a couple.

A similar level of painful incompetence is also presented with Will’s new military assignment as part of a “casualty notification team.” This new, thankless position requires that he notify civilian families about their loved ones who have died in action. Will is placed directly under the tutelage of Stone who is all about the cold-blooded, by-the-book method. Stone’s heartless delivery of news from the battlefield and the reactions he gets from those he notifies are truly heart-wrenching. Stone proceeds to try to mold Will into another son of hell like himself, but Will, though battle-scarred and cynical, still has a heart.

One of Stone’s most serious rules is to not have any physical interaction with the N.O.K. (next of kin). This specific rule becomes a point of contention between the two. Will is prone to offering an understanding hand on the shoulder. The situation is made even more complex when he finds himself attracted to a widow he notifies.

Foster’s performance of Will is so reserved and guarded that it is hard to make a connection with this character or know where he stands on just about any issue. However, at least Foster attempts to humanize Will. Renner’s William James from THE HURT LOCKER never lowers his guard as much as Foster’s Will does.

Will’s treatment of Kelly and his berating of a military mechanic are obvious symptoms of some seriously stunted social skills. When assigned to the casualty notification team, Will cites himself as never having received grief counseling or being in a position to give it. Will has demons, the kind of demons that need a well-scripted expulsion. With the portrayal of Will as cloaked as it is, the catharsis really needs to be visible. Unfortunately for the viewer, the exorcism presented is in the form of a cliché band-aid.

Captain Stone has problems of his own. His teetotaling stance on life is sidelined for long, drunken carousing sessions with Will during which Stone and Will proceed to draw closer and closer in a distant, manly fashion, each subtly bringing their own personal dysfunctions to the table for dissection. Unfortunately, a lot of the dissection feels forced.

When Will and Stone tear a guilt-ridden verbal strip out of a highway patrolman for pulling them over, it feels rehearsed. Their drunken game of total warfare role-play in a parking lot also feels strangely false. The glimpse into their world of pain feels stilted. There is also emptiness at this film’s core. Emptiness and distance are presented through the lives of Will, Stone, and how they interact with each other and the people around them.

The scenes that really feel sincere, like the scene in which Dale Martin (Steve Buscemi) is informed that his son was taken out by snipers or the scene in which Will smashes holes in the wall as he wrestles with his feelings for Kelly, are overshadowed by scenes that feel contrived. An example of this would be the heartless, cynical conversation Stone has with a one-night stand of his in which they both flippantly tell each other to “have a nice life.”

THE MESSENGER isn’t quite “must-see viewing.” It is flawed but not completely disfigured. If there is one reason that should be cited for seeing it, that reason would have to be the performance of Woody Harrelson. This movie is essentially his show. When he is not onscreen you are waiting for him to return. It isn’t really possible to second-guess what the next thing coming out of his mouth will be or how he will react to virtually anything. Harrelson’s Stone isn’t even particularly likeable, but you can’t take your eyes off of him. His complexity as a character is staggering, and he upstages everyone else in every scene he is in. It is no surprise that Woody Harrelson is up for an Academy Award for his work in this film. Ever since NATURAL BORN KILLERS, he has been perfecting his “dangerous hillbilly” routine. Every twitch, every part of his swagger, and the way he grimaces when portraying anger are all charged with lethal amounts of unpredictable testosterone. Harrelson’s Captain Stone is a cocky, blunt man with unrealized dreams. His presentation of a man totally out of touch with his emotions is rather remarkable. Harrelson does a pitch-perfect job of displaying some superhuman bluster while slowly revealing the weak joints in Stone’s armor.

THE MESSENGER ends on a hopeful note, and this is what really sets it apart from THE HURT LOCKER. Will and Stone both manage to present and wrestle their demons within the parameters of the story. Unfortunately, the story is too simple. The idea of the adventures of a casualty notification team can only go so far. Within its simplicity also lies a disjointed presentation of human interactions. This should come as no surprise because director Oren Moverman also wrote the horribly disjointed and overwrought I’M NOT THERE. THE MESSENGER comes across as a well-acted, didactic note on the ramifications of the war in Iraq. Unfortunately, its lofty intentions are bogged down with an overwritten lack of sincerity.

-Mediasaurus Rex

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