Hey, it’s Mutual Oscarbation, our awards season feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart crawl out of their Netflix envelope-insulated dens and find out during what sorts of movies Academy members are waiting for their orchestral cue to cry. This week they tag along with Oren Moverman’s The Messenger on the most depressing job in the world.
Hi, Ben. So, once again, the Oscar [nomination] goes to… the big, brash, brawny performance! In The Messenger, that comes courtesy of Woody Harrelson, whose character has the thankless task of delivering news of army casualties to the dead soldier’s Next of Kin. He’s as emotionally unmoveable in his duties as a Buckingham Palace guard—no tears, touching, or stutters—as you might expect from a character named [S]Tony Stone. (Why not Rocky Rock?) Gee, I wonder if he’ll break down and cry by the end of the movie? Anyway, the better turn comes from Stone’s new partner, Will, played by Ben Foster, didn’t you think? It’s a much quieter performance, characterized more by welling eyes than scenery chewing, all the more surprising as it comes from Foster, who I know more for bouncing off the walls in Alpha Dog or going full retard in Freaks and Geeks.
Foster, of course, has to tone it down because epic emotions and high-volume drama are all around him, provided by the family members to whom Rocky and Will must deliver bad news, most of whom blame, as in displace their anguish and rage on—wait for it—The Messengers. They’re smacked by one lady, spit on by Steve Buscemi, and otherwise just bear witness to the inconsolable heartbreak they cause; in between, the two men get to know each other—they’re complex characters, you know, slowly peeling back each other’s layers. These scenes—the message deliveries and the bar room follow-ups—are the film’s best, their emotional content made more poignant because director Moverman (who helped write the conceptually sound but roughly executed I’m Not There) shoots the inherently manipulative proceedings coolly: thanks be to the gods of cinema, Ben, that there are no mawkish musical cues or screeching flashbacks, just long stretches of raw dialogue. It’s too bad, though, that Moverman and co-writer Alessandro Camon, mostly a producer with a modestly respectable list of credits, don’t know where to go with these characters or the set-up; the storytelling slacks, the film saunters through subplots clumsily stacked on each other. It could use fewer flimsy love-interest digressions—including with one of the widows (Samantha Morton, still as underappreciated as ever) to whom they deliver bad news—and more male bonding in the shadow of Iraq’s homefront human misery.
The problem Rocky and Will keep coming up against is a political one—just because you’ve obscured the film’s political message doesn’t mean you’ve made it apolitical; am I right?—and a sociological one: Americans are way too disconnected from death; end-of-life care happens in hospitals, funeral preparations in the basements of specialized parlors. And, of course, when soldiers die we don’t (or, didn’t?) see their coffins, and we surely don’t see their funerals televised. A deformed emotional space emerges, where the inevitable death of war comes as an unbearable shock to those touched by, and unable to cope with, it. The Messenger is a film about alienation: the cultural alienation from death, and the death messengers’ alienation from the culture, a result of all the death they’ve witnessed, whether on the front lines or the homefront. American movies don’t usually dwell on death and grief so long or so brutally.
The one aspect of The Messenger that took me for a loop was that almost all of the families that Rocky and Will have to notify lived on tree-lined suburban streets of humble prosperity. (One lived in an apartment building and, of course, it was also the one that didn’t speak English.) Ben, don’t the filmmakers know that the all-volunteer force is disproportionately made up of the exploited poor? Or it just a narrative technique meant to make the story “universal”?
Good question, Henry! That bugged me a little too, so before I try my hardest to convince you that the scenes between Foster and Morton are in fact the film’s best, let me address this counter-intuitive urban-suburban disconnect that you’re very right to mention. This may simply have to do with the film’s setting in New Jersey, where there’s really only one city, and endless gutted towns and ticky-tacky subdivisions that range from the most absurdly wealthy to some of the nation’s poorest. I should also point out that rural poverty, though generally under-represented by comparison to its urban cousin, is just as bleak and probably makes the prospect of a way out (whether with the army, or the USS Enterprise) extremely appealing to young lads and ladies wanting to see the world. (Incidentally, we should mention that the one notification delivered in a cramped apartment building doorway pertained to the death of a female soldier, which seems like a moment in the Iraq war movie genre that’s been long overdue.) There’s not much point trying to argue that inner city, suburban or rural poverty is inherently more disempowering, but let’s just say that the fact that most army volunteers are poor doesn’t ipso-facto mean that most army volunteers are from inner cities. That’s very urbanist of you, Henry. Shame.
Aside from geographic realism, though, Stone and Montgomery’s disproportionately suburban and rural house calls might have even more to do with The Messenger’s oppositional relationship to cinematic precedents. For a film that continually subverts our well-worn expectations of what war movies do—use obnoxious emotional cue music; gloss over post-traumatic stress disorders and battle scars; flashback to the battlefields; wave flags; portray soldiers as brutish thugs and/or symbolically castrated pussies—it seemed to me that the emphasis was less on informing us of where most death notices are delivered and rather on dispelling the convention of the relatively easy and clean front porch doorway announcement. I can think of few American movies that have made better use of handheld cinematography, which became especially effective in those moments after Next of Kin had been notified and all you wanted was for the messengers to bail, but due to the very subtle and immersive blocking and architecture of these scenes we, like Stone and Montgomery, can’t possibly get away from bawling or fuming relatives as fast as we’d like. In their first notification together, for instance, after being invited into a dingy, dim and claustrophobic living room, the mother and pregnant girlfriend of the deceased collapse in tears and wails right at an awkward bottleneck by the front door, effectively ambushing the messengers (and us) in one of the film’s many brutal blast zones. War is messy and painful, not only in terms of exit strategies from occupied countries, but even exit strategies from homes where we’ve just dropped emotional bombshells. I think that’s part of why Camon and Moverman play on our ideas of where and how death notices are delivered, setting these scenes in homes not unlike those visited by foregoing war film messengers and then trapping us in our own delusional expectations.
And speaking of delusional expectations, I can’t believe that you didn’t like the romance between Olivia (Morton) and Montgomery, in which he wants so badly to get into her pants, thinking she’ll forget about her dead husband and hop in bed with the messenger just like that. Their incredible chemistry, in all its subdued nuances and conflicting compulsions, only underlined for me the relative one-dimensionality of the Woody Harrelson character. Every scene between the tentatively courting pair felt electric with tension, excitement, guilt, anxiety, and possibility. Foster and Morton put on a superb acting workshop so textured and multi-faceted, so natural and apparently effortless that it must have gone right over Academy members’ heads—especially since Harrelson’s performance comes packaged with all those noisy Oscar signifiers you mentioned, something like an indie version of Forest Gump’s Lieutenant Dan.
I found Morton particularly spectacular, with her darting glances, wobbly movements, understated warmth, and competing desires and duties. Here, again, the filmmakers are challenging the typically two-toned portrayal of grief in war movies. That long take scene in her kitchen that lasts a little over eight minutes but feels like a whole other movie-within-the-movie—in which they go from almost kissing, to avoiding eye contact, to cuddling gently, to admitting their simultaneous desire and reluctance, to rescheduling their kiss—blew me away. After that I felt much less attached to the boys’ camaraderie, which seemed destined to revert to war movie formulas (as it did), and infinitely more invested in the fragile seedlings of this very uncertain romance. Emotional rebuilding after the kind of overwhelming devastation these characters have experienced proceeds with minute fits and starts. The Messenger portrays this process—particularly in the relationship between Montgomery and Olivia—more honestly and, I think, optimistically, than any recent war movie I can think of. That it didn’t at least get a Best Picture nom is disheartening, though not at all surprising.