×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Messenger

Ben Foster softens his crazy-man shtick to deliver a complex and moving performance in the Iraq War drama.

With:
Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery - Ben Foster Capt. Tony Stone - Woody Harrelson Olivia Pitterson - Samantha Morton Kelly - Jena Malone Dale Martin - Steve Buscemi Col. Stuart Dorsett - Eamonn Walker

Nobody plays angry like Ben Foster, but compassion is something new for the actor, who softens his crazy-man shtick to deliver a complex and moving performance in “The Messenger.” Foster plays an Iraq War hero assigned to work for the Casualty Notification Office — those uniformed bearers of bad news who show up on the doorsteps of parents and wives with word of a soldier’s death. Director Oren Moverman’s devastating debut confuses its message somewhat by allowing the officer to fall for one of the widows (Samantha Morton), a development, however, that should boost commercial prospects for this potent character study.

Joining such recent Iraq War films as “Grace Is Gone” and “The Lucky Ones” in addressing combat’s toll on the homefront, “The Messenger” manages to be both practical and patriotic in the same breath, zeroing in on one of the most painful aspects of wartime. Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Foster, “30 Days of Night”) was wounded in Iraq, taking shrapnel to the leg and face. With only three months of service left on his enlistment, he is reassigned to casualty notification, arguably the Army’s least comfortable job.

The movie sets up a fertile dynamic between the rebellious young man and his seasoned commanding officer, Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a recovering alcoholic who has developed the nerves for their task. Montgomery is too weak at first, identifying too strongly with the grieving families to be the stone-faced messenger the job requires. After all, Montgomery is still working through his own issues: He came home to find his ex-girlfriend (Jena Malone) engaged to someone else, and he carries his post-traumatic stress just beneath the surface — a stunning use of the actor’s innate volatility.

But as the relationship between Montgomery and Stone matures, we come to realize that Montgomery may actually be the soldier better suited to express the Army’s condolences to complete strangers. The task certainly helps him cope with his own demons — Foster takes responsibility for a comrade’s death and wrestles daily with the guilt of his own survival in ways that are suggested but not directly articulated until late in the movie.

Though much of the film focuses on their off hours, the episodes of the two officers at work prove challenging. Such scenes of sudden grief are familiar to most auds (the mother collapsing in her doorway in “Saving Private Ryan”), but “The Messenger” views the exchange from the p.o.v. of the men tasked with breaking the news. Montgomery has a difficult time standing by during these encounters (featuring strong, brief appearances by actors such as Steve Buscemi) — and in the case of Morton’s Army wife, he goes back to check up on her, an admirable sensitivity complicated by a highly inappropriate sexual attraction.

To offset the sheer tragedy, Moverman and co-writer Alessandro Camon inject a fair amount of humor into the film. Stone’s casual jocularity is a way of coping with so much loss, and over time, Harrelson slowly lets the audience in on the true fragility of his character. But the narrative loses focus late in the second act, with the two officers going off on a wild bender, and crystallizes once again in a powerful confessional between the two men toward the end of the movie.

Camerawork and tech credits are polished and ready for release.

Popular on Variety

The Messenger

Production: An Omnilab Media Group presentation in association with Sherezade Film Development Co. and BZ Entertainment of a Mark Gordon Co. /Good Worldwide production. (International sales: UTA, Los Angeles.) Produced by Gordon, Lawrence Inglee, Zach Miller. Executive producers, Ben Goldhirsh, Christopher Mapp, Matthew Street, David Whealy, Glenn Stuart, Steffen Aumueller, Claus Clausen, Bryan Zuriff, Shaun Redick. Directed by Oren Moverman. Screenplay, Moverman, Alessandro Camon.

Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Bobby Bukowski; editor, Alex Hall; music, Nathan Larson; music supervisor, Tracy McKnight; production designer, Stephen Beatrice; costume designer, Catherine George; sound (Dolby), Ken Ishii; casting, Laura Rosenthal, Ali Farrell. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 19, 2009. (Also in Berlin Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 112 MIN.

With: Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery - Ben Foster Capt. Tony Stone - Woody Harrelson Olivia Pitterson - Samantha Morton Kelly - Jena Malone Dale Martin - Steve Buscemi Col. Stuart Dorsett - Eamonn Walker

More Film

  • THE-CURSE-OF-THE-HANDSOME-MAN-photo2

    Filmax Acquires International on ‘The Curse of the Handsome Man’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    SAN SEBASTIAN  —  Barcelona-based boutique studio Filmax has acquired international rights to Argentine producer-director Beda Docampo’s “The Curse of the Handsome Man,” produced by Ibón Cormenzana’s Arcadia Motion Pictures alongside Cados Producciones and Damned Besso –based in Spain—in co-production with Cecilia Díez’s Zarlek Producciones (“Medianeras”) in Argentina. The film is backed by Spanish public broadcaster [...]

  • La-mala-familia

    Javi Tasio Talks ECAM Incubator Title ‘La Mala Familia’

    SAN SEBASTIAN  —  Via their BRBR collective, filmmakers Nacho A. Villar and Luis Rojo have directed award winning music videos, and commercias. Now they’ll make the leap to features with “La Mala Familia,” a gritty urban drama set in the outskirts of Madrid. Variety spoke with the film’s producer, Javi Tasio, who developed this project at ECAM’s [...]

  • Submerged

    Outsider Takes World Sales on ‘Submerged’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    SAN SEBASTIAN  — Paul Hudson’s Outsider Pictures has acquired world sales rights to“Submergible” (Submerged) a narco capsule-sub-set drama thriller from Ecuador’s Alfredo León León who debuted with an original prisoner-of-war drama, “Open Wound.” Written by Daniela Granja Nuñez and Alfredo León León, “Submerged” is produced out of Ecuador by León León’s Boom en Cuadro and [...]

  • Charlie-Chaplin-and-Horse-Roy-Export-Co

    Carmen Chaplin to Direct ‘Charlie Chaplin, a Man of the World’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    SAN SEBASTIAN  — Director-producer-actress Carmen Chaplin is set to direct “Charlie Chaplin, a Man of the World,” a theatrical documentary feature which will add a hardly-explored new facet to the creator of the Tramp, one of the most iconic cinema characters in popular consciousness, plumbing Chaplin’s Romani roots and heritage. Marking the first time that [...]

  • Incitement

    'Incitement' Wins Ophir Award for Best Picture, Becomes Israel's Oscar Submission

    “Incitement” was the best-picture winner at Israel’s Ophir Awards on Sunday night, automatically becoming the country’s choice to vie for the international feature film Oscar. The winning film, a drama about the period leading up to the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist in 1995, had its global premiere at [...]

  • LargoAI

    LargoAI Wins Inaugural San Sebastian Zinemaldia & Technology Startup Challenge

    SAN SEBASTIAN  —  Swiss artificial intelligence and data analytics company LargoAI won Sunday’s first-ever San Sebastian Film Festival Zinemaldia & Technology Startup Challenge. LargoAI’s software provides data-driven filmmaking strategies, similar to those used by major VOD platforms which aggregate and often horde their own user-driven data. From early in the screenwriting process through development and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content