E: Oscar season often leads me to movies I would never see otherwise. You can rank The Messenger high up on that list: who wants to see a movie about the squad who notifies families that their loved ones have died in battle? Not me. Oh no, not me. But despite that, and despite the fact that I would never want to spend real life time hanging out with most of these characters, I’m really glad I saw this movie. I might even say I enjoyed it. It’s hard to use that word – enjoy – considering how lousy the notification squad job is, and yet somehow, it’s the one that fits.
Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery squeezes eye drops into his eyes; this is the first thing we see, too close. As the tears roll out, we notice a scar under his left eye – just under the lower lid, uncomfortably close to his eye. The entire moment is uncomfortable. Soon enough, he’s called into a superior’s office, where he’s assigned his new duty. We’re giving you this job, the commanding officer says, because you’re tough. You won’t cry when you do this. You have other duties, but this is the most important. And he’s introduced to his senior partner, Captain Tony Stone, played with an utterly convincing blend of wackiness and severity by Woody Harrelson. Stone is at once a cynical hard-ass, and a dopey good time guy. When it comes to notification, he’s in love with the rules; we only talk to the “NOKs” (next of kin), we never touch them, we never diverge from the script.
And it’s a true hell of a job – and not in the blindly genial George Bush sense of the phrase. For Will’s first assignment, the official next of kin isn’t home, and they have to wait while the dead soldier’s pregnant girlfriend (Yaya from America’s Next Top Model) offers them a drink and only gradually becomes alarmed by their silence. By the time the soldier’s mother arrives, Yaya is keening; the mother slaps Captain Stone. At the next notification, Steve Buscemi points out the tree he planted the day his son was born, and hurls things at them, calling them cowards. One woman, shocked beyond histrionics, shakes their hands and thanks them. Once a man vomits. Once they start a fight between family members, only to have to force them to listen to the terrible news. Gut wrenching doesn’t even cover it. Yet at the same time, there’s a dignity to the work. As horrible as it is – and blamed as the messengers are – it’s a sign of respect to our soldiers. And watching the pain of these fictional families becomes, in a way, a sacrifice we lift up for the real families who suffer such losses unseen.
Gradually, we learn that Will (as played by Ben Foster) a “goddamned hero” and was wounded. We see that he was somehow broken by his experience abroad. He has most of the use of his right leg back. He’s quiet, and he listens to loud, angry white boy rock; not goth, but hard enough. He has a brief reconnection with Kelly (a delicate pixie played by Jena Malone), the girl he loved since they were kids, but he had broken off their relationship when he was deployed to Iraq, in case something happened to him. The movie itself is about those consequences. It isn’t merely death, but the way war changes the living. We’ve seen that in The Hurt Locker, but we see it in more facets here. Calamity is a universal experience.
Tony tries to take Will under his wing; he wants to show him the rules, . Tony’s an alcoholic sliding out of recovery, hanging out in bars and panting after girls half his age. Improbably (at least to my mind) he usually talks one of them into going home with him; he once calls Will to ask for his email address while one such girl lies in his bed. They have a bender of a weekend, devolving into a gate crashing scene where Tony, in the background, combs his eyebrows with a fork. Will, on the other hand, becomes increasingly, inappropriately taken by Samantha Morton’s widow (the one who shook their hands); their halting attempts at intimacy are (here’s that word again) deeply uncomfortable and slightly creepy and and profoundly moving. Their awkward longing for connection, for purity, is a frightening and lovely thing.
Woody Harrelson picked up his second nomination for his work here. The film was also nominated for its script, in the Original Screenplay category. Harrelson will lose to Christoph Waltz, and Original Screenplay seems most likely (and, frankly, puzzlingly) to be bestowed on Tarantino’s awkwardly structured historical fantasy Inglourious Basterds. Ben Foster and Samantha Morton had mild buzz, and I’m sorry they didn’t get more attention. They do fine work here. With all respect to Jeremy Renner (whom I do think was terrific), Foster’s is the performance I most responded to. But maybe I just like and understand him more. Maybe I just like the screenplay more. I’m actually sorry to see Harrelson lose, which bemuses me a bit (even though Plummer’s probably my favorite of the performances I’ve seen). Tony Stone is specific. He’s an oddball, in a particular, peculiar intersection in his life, and the performance is a triumph of brilliant material and inspired, committed acting.
I find myself wondering why The Hurt Locker is going to win Oscars, and The Messenger didn’t even make the Best Picture list. I suppose it might be because most people are as put off by the notification idea as I was. I suppose it’s because people didn’t watch this one, or perhaps because they prefer action films. I like action films (love them when they’re done well enough) but I love character movies, too, and idea movies. When Will finally explains what happened to him in the war, it hurts us – but it helps him. Perhaps – just perhaps – his heroism didn’t break him after all.