MPAA Rating: R/Genre: War Drama/ Stars: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, Steve Buscemi, Yaya DaCosta, Eamonn Walker, Peter Francis James, Merritt Wever, Gaius Charles, Brendan Sexton III, Carl Anthony Payne II, Halley Feiffer, Peter Friedman, Jeremy Strong, Fiona Dourif, Michael Chernus/Runtime: 113 minutes
I think it is safe to say that the long gone year known as 2009 was a distinct year for cinema in how it managed to bring us a new zeroing in on the destructive impact that modern combat can have to say nothing of the trauma it can put on those who valiantly make the choice to serve in the armed forces. However this came with a trade-off as we see that, due in large part to the overwhelming success experienced by that year’s Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker, there were several slices of cinematic pie of a similar ilk that didn’t get nearly as much in the way of box office love even if the critics tried to make up for that as much as possible. Yet if I am being completely honest with you dear reader: before making the choice to tackle this movie for my review, my knowledge of the movie known as The Messenger was practically nil. A tad bit astonishing, especially for me, when taking into account its talented cast, and the award nods that it did ultimately wind up picking up. Yet perhaps more astonishing than that is the fact that when you look at how this movie did from a box office perspective, this movie never managed to acquire a “big name distributor” to ensure it got as wide of a release as possible. A fact that, as tragic as it might be, does at least provide us with a solid piece of evidence that the major players in the world of movie magic don’t always know a good thing when they got it thus leaving it up to the casual movie goer like you or me to find films like this one. Trust me when I say though that it is a hunt that is most assuredly worth it, should this distinct slice of cinematic pie be up your particular alley, once you finally find it and sit down and watch it from beginning to end.
The plot is as follows: Upon coming back home due to acquiring some injuries during his recent time being spent in Iraq, we witness as a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army by the name of Will Montgomery finds himself reassigned to serve as a Casualty Notification Officer. Suffice it to say that even though he doesn’t think he’s the man for this particular job due to having problems segueing back into being a civilian himself, our intrepid hero manages to keep these reservations stored inside in order to do the best job possible in his new post. Thus it isn’t long that Will is able to with speed and efficiency, thanks in large part to his new partner Capt. Tony Stone, learn just what is expected of him in his new posting and, despite the regulations being heartbreakingly out of date, attempts to do the best job possible. To that end, we see things change one when, whilst on what seems to be a typical assignment with Stone, Will crosses paths with a recently made single again young woman, who showcases an astonishing degree of grace in her response to the news that her husband has passed on. Becoming quite taken with her, we soon see our hero forcibly insert himself into her time of grief and in the process become someone that she and her child can lean on in this dark hour. Unfortunately this isn’t exactly received well by Stone since, despite the procedures being out of date, still holds them high with a degree of reverence normally reserved for saints or other religious icons. Yet as time goes on, our dynamic duo will soon begin to see just what it is they are in combat with individually and slowly but surely form a distinct friendship that will reach a head courtesy of a distinct odyssey where secrets come to the surface, promises made will be shattered, and perhaps the truth might just finally be found….
Now it should be noted that The Messenger is a distinct slice of cinematic pie for being the kind that places itself inside your mind and then never wants to leave and go elsewhere. Indeed even though it has been a solid 1-2 days after I sat down and watched this movie, I still find moments where my thoughts go toward some of the more disturbing moments whilst also contemplating how many people in uniform come back home only to find that the life they left behind is one they can no longer comprehend. In the case of Will, we see that his sense of isolation is due to a horrific calamity that left with damage of both a physical and emotional nature which is then compounded upon when he discovers his longtime girlfriend has become betrothed to someone he knew before he shipped out thus leaving him without the support a survivor of such trauma needs in order to make their way back into society. To that end, we see as he spends his time listening to music that would make any screamo band proud, falling asleep on his clean apartment floor, and just staring intently into the gap found within himself. Yet whilst this vibe of isolation is made better to some degree with the introduction of Capt. Stone, you can also at the same time be able to see that there is something not quite right with him either within mere minutes of meeting him. No he is not as conflicted as our main hero, but you could easily make the argument that all the years of doing this particular job has left him in equal measure cynical and jaded in equal measure. A way of handling this situation that really doesn’t sit well with our hero since he has first-hand knowledge on what it is like losing people in combat. Of course, the differences between our dynamic duo naturally cause a lot of tension at the start so it stands to reason that it won’t evolve into comradery until the two actually uncover just how alike they truly are, but in this case both the journey and where this movie winds up are truly worth it.
Ultimately though, the key ingredient that distinguishes this slice of cinematic pie from the majority of movies yet manages to get it a spot on the counter next to other cinematic pies like it is the seemingly never ending vibe of unease wafting through the air in this one. Indeed every single time our dynamic duo head to someone’s house in order to give them the “bad news”, you feel your stomach sink and your heart skip a beat since you know what is about to be said is sure to be far from the happiest news that either deliverer or recipient has ever uttered/heard. Yes there have been other movies that have showcased these message deliverers in a manner that is more superficial in nature, but I feel that this perhaps is the first time in a while that the reactions involved on both ends actually feel genuine and organic. For example, on our main character’s first such “notification”, he and Stone are invited in by a pregnant woman who lets them know the recently passed soldier’s mom will be home shortly since they can only, due to the rules, speak with the young man’s most direct relative despite it being obvious this girl is the boy’s significant other and her unborn child is his. However, as the moments tick by it soon begins to dawn on the young woman just why our dynamic duo is there and slowly, but surely the tension is ratcheted up until the expected emotional outpouring which is truly heartwrenching to behold.
Now it would be quite the difficult, if not downright impossible, task to talk about this distinct slice of cinematic pie if I didn’t devote a section of this review to the incredible work done by the talented thespians in front of the camera. This starts with Woody Harrelson whose work here as Captain Stone saw earn an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor and in my opinion it was well-earned. I say this because, despite at first calling to mind the straight-laced, formality that comes with someone who has made the military their life, Harrelson manages to give us one of the finest performances he’s given especially as the movie goes on and he begins to unravel a bit. Not it is most assuredly not an easy task for a thespian to conjure up a character who has enough baggage to pay exorbitant handling fees at the airport, but especially when that same character is more subtle in how they show off their various bits of baggage so what Harrelson is able to do here is simply astonishing. Indeed in many respects I see the character of Stone sees perhaps a hint of himself in Will, but remains emotionally distant due to the years of trauma and alcoholism forced on him by the job that they conduct. We also see wonderful work from Ben Foster who, after making his way through quite a few engaging popcorn movies, it is an absolute delight to see immerse himself into a genuine performance that permits his inherent levels of intensity and genuine talent to be showcased. Indeed I don’t know of a whole lot of thespians around his age who could draw out as much emotion as he does from something as simple as a look on his face or a glance with his eyes. Thus I think it is safe to say that as long as Foster continues to give no less than 110% and be as effective in any other roles as he is here then I wouldn’t be surprised to one day see him be awarded an Oscar for his efforts.
All in all I think it is safe to say beyond a doubt in my mind that the slice of cinematic pie that is The Messenger most assuredly warrants being seen as one of the better movies of the long-gone year that is 2009. Indeed it really is quite the travesty that this movie never was able to acquire a bigger theatrical release than what it ultimately garnered, but through the power of DVD/Blu-Ray I think this film is now able to thankfully reach the audience it was unable to the first go-around. Indeed if it wasn’t clear by this point in the review then please know that through the power of its subject matter and especially the powerhouse cast brought together to bring this story to life that I am able to without a doubt in my mind give this slice of cinematic pie a hearty recommendation even if it does come with the caveat that the subject matter might hit home a little bit harder for some and as such should be approached by those people with a degree of caution. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Messenger “09” a solid 4 out of 5.