At the Arthouse

Message obscured in The Messenger

Message obscured in The Messenger

News_The Messenger_movie poster

Critics fret that there is hardly any market left for American films made with adults in mind. One reason we worry is because there has been virtually zero interest in films, intelligent or otherwise, about our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Films as powerful as In the Valley of Elah and The Hurt Locker together grossed less than $20 million.

The new film The Messenger probably won’t do boffo box office itself, but this time we can skip the hand-wringing. Unlike most of its predecessors, this aftermath-of-war movie really isn’t very good. Or rather, for maybe a third of its playing time the film is amazing and maybe even important. But for the other two-thirds I recommend copious amounts of popcorn to keep you company.

Let’s start with the good news. The Messenger is more or less a buddy movie (though admittedly a very idiosyncratic one) that follows the travails of Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), an emotionally and physically damaged war “hero” (the movie itself supplies the irony), and his partner, Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), as they make their rounds informing parents and spouses that their loved ones have just died in action. It’s an audacious idea for a film, and in the scenes where Stone and Will are getting their faces slapped, spit on, and cried into by the heartbroken (such as an excellent Steve Buscemi), the film is extremely moving.

The devastated parents and wives come in a variety of ages, races and economic brackets; at times the film feels like a secret roadmap of American grief.

But filmmaker Oren Moverman, himself a former Israeli soldier, has little idea of what to do with his characters when they’re not painfully reciting their “The Secretary of the Army regrets to inform you…” lines. Despite the fact that the two lead actors work well together, and that their characters mesh in an interesting way (turns out Captain Stone is jealous that his enlisted assistant is a battle-tested warrior and he isn’t), the film only works at all when both men are on screen. There’s a strange tinge of Apocalypse Now here, which for a time had me wishing that the gleaming-pated and emotionally spiky Harrelson had played Col. Kurtz instead of the preposterous Brando. Ben Foster certainly seems to be channeling Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard when his character drunkenly smashes up his own apartment.

Actually, Foster’s performance is a big part of the film’s problem. Outside of the “messenger” scenes, Foster mostly seems to be channeling other war movies rather than honest emotion. He’s gotten some good reviews for his work here, but I’d have to rate his performance a dud. The film’s main subplot, Will’s courtship of the newly-widowed Olivia (Samantha Morton), is not so much awkward, and therefore touching, as “huh”-inducing. Really, Sergeant?

Harrelson’s performance, and his character, are much more interesting. Harrelson’s peeling away of his emotionally stunted good-old-boy’s layers often strikes a nerve, but Moverman unwisely has him playing second banana.