Movie Review: ‘The Messenger’

November 10, 2009 Updated: November 10, 2009

Ben Foster (R) and Woody Harrelson play Iraq war veterans tasked with informing families that their loved ones have died in service in the film 'The Messenger.' (Oscilloscope Laboratories)
Ben Foster (R) and Woody Harrelson play Iraq war veterans tasked with informing families that their loved ones have died in service in the film 'The Messenger.' (Oscilloscope Laboratories)
The recent tragedy at Fort Hood highlights a fact, which has become increasingly apparent since the Vietnam War. As a nation, we do not know how to handle the traumas of war. How do we repay our warriors for the sacrifices they have made? More often than not, we turn our heads and look away.

“The Messenger” does not look away. This film charts the emotional and physiological development of two traumatized American war vets that have been given the formidable job of casualty notification. They are the guys that tell the family that their loved ones have been killed in action.

At each call, they take the blame for being the bearers of bad news. They are slapped, spit upon, insulted, and scorned by the grief stricken families. Throughout the ensuing hysteria, they must remain firm, centered, and noble. This steadiness then leads them toward healing.

These scenes build and then explode in the same way that a good action sequence develops. The emotional tension goes off the Richter scale. Through learning to remain open and true to others during these intense moments, they begin to do the same for themselves.

Samantha Morton plays a woman who loses her husband in the Iraq war in 'The Messenger.' (Oscilloscope Laboratories)
Samantha Morton plays a woman who loses her husband in the Iraq war in 'The Messenger.' (Oscilloscope Laboratories)
However, “The Messenger” is not just a sad war story, as it might at first appear to be. The weight is balanced with humor. Among other things, the film is about falling down, handling the pain, friendship, communication, trust, balance, and transcendence.

The film is based on a screenplay created by the writing team of Israeli war vet Oren Moverman and first generation Italian immigrant Alessandro Camon. Incredibly, this is also Moverman’s directorial debut. Moverman himself saw combat action in Lebanon in the 1980s. This explains why the film is so in touch with how war trauma can either decimate a soldier, or be used to build character. Both of these writers have brought the warmth and emotional openness of their cultures and applied it to the all American male.

Woody Harrelson is outstanding, in the supporting role of Tony Stone, a jaded soldier who thinks he sees all the angles, but has in truth, become blinded by his own bitterness and pain. Ben Foster puts on an academy award-worthy performance as Will Montgomery, an understated Iraqi war vet, who reveals step by step what it takes to be a true hero.
Although this is more of a story about men healing themselves, there is a woman at the center of it. Samantha Morton glows in a subtle, yet riveting performance. She demonstrates for Will, the lost feminine. The beauty of her healing, gentleness, and grace is mesmerizing.

This is a movie about learning to combine these more feminine traits with the masculine nature. It’s a study in how this appears from the male perspective. It reveals the tremendous inner strength and discipline it takes to arrive at that kind, gentle, yet fiercely uncompromising, and enduring place. It is in that place, that one must face oneself, and through doing so, become whole, good, noble, and true.