It’s one of those frustrating facts that films in the running for Oscars often don’t even get a release in this country till after the award ceremony’s over. But quite why The Messenger, which was nominated at not this year’s but last year’s Oscars, has been delayed for so long is a bit of a mystery. After all, it’s a well written and moving drama which features a stunning performance from Woody Harrelson – what were they so ashamed of?
Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), an injured war hero, is reluctantly assigned what is widely believed to be one of the worst jobs in the army – that of bringing the news of the death of a fallen comrade to the victim’s families. He works with the appropriately named Captain Tony Stone (Harrelson), who lays out the rules which Montgomery must keep at all times: don’t ring the bell, just knock; no hugging or physical contact and absolutely no fraternising with the bereaved.
They’re rules which Montgomery has trouble sticking to. Unlike Stone, who served his tour of duty without having seen action, Montgomery was in the thick of it – he knows the power of compassion (“they’re just human beings; they’re people; they’re not like you”). The final rule is quickly broken when he starts a faltering, hesitant romance with a widow (Samantha Morton), now left to raise her son by herself.
Foster is better known for playing hard-asses in films like 3:10 To Yuma and Alpha Dog. Here he plays a regular person who has experienced pain and is still struggling to heal, a melancholy aching that leeks out in a subtle performance. He’s supported ably by Samantha Morton – a grieving widow, looking for support in her time of need but all too aware of the outside perception of her relationship with Will – things are too soon, too raw for her to handle; she longs for the solace of human warmth, but fears getting too close lest she be burnt.
But the star is Harrelson, who delivers a stunning turn as Tony Stone and was rightly nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his trouble. On the face of it, he’s an implacable wall of testosterone (aided by the fact that he looks like he could be Blaine from Predator‘s younger brother), full of jarhead machismo and chauvinistic pomp. His humour leads to some great lines. When faced with a barmaid, he quips “I’d like to strap her on and wear her like a government-issue gasmask” but Stone is cracked, if not broken. He calls Montgomery in the night just for someone to talk to, hiding the late-night lapse in manliness under the guise of testing his readiness. As the film progresses the two develop an awkward if endearing relationship.
It’s a very personal film, one which strips away the over sentimentality and political commentary common to many movies about war and one which effectively conveys the very personal aftermath left in its wake; one that evokes the heartfelt personal loss of The Hurt Locker without the gripping tension . Writer and director Oren Moverman will reunite Harrelson and Foster in his next project Rampart; judging by The Messenger, we can expect great things.