Woody Harrelson may be the John Wayne our war in Iraq deserves. If Harrelson's newest, The Messenger, seems to run off the rails, it may be the kind of movie that wasn't intended to be on the rails in the first place. Made in the shadow of Hal Ashby's 1973 film The Last Detail, The Messenger has a profane streak. Like that movie, it features a pair of soldiers on a sort of liberty leave—at least, they're unsupervised and frequently on the road.
Harrelson's Capt. Stone is a Casualty Notification Officer, one of the pair of soldiers who turn up on doorsteps to regret to inform. He seems self&–assured (he's an easy&–going Southern girl&–chaser) and he feels there's a system behind what he's doing—"Do not touch the NOK [next of kin]." Stone has enough of a sense of humor to put "The Funeral March" on his ringtone. Stone's new partner, Sgt. Montgomery (Ben Foster), is a simmering, tattooed fan of punk rock; he's scarred from the war and is boiling with his own contempt for the civilians around him.
The horror of this assignment seems realistic. The Messenger has inside details about what needs to be done, such as the importance of getting to the fateful doorstep before the blogs or the newspapers. And the two&–man team keep the pity for themselves and not for the survivors. The first people we see informed—the pregnant fiancée and the mother of the killed&–in&–Iraq soldier—blow up, howling in horror. It's clear that being such a messenger is a job for which there is no real preparation.
But we start to see celebrity actors playing the bereaved: Steve Buscemi as a spitting, furious father; Samantha Morton, plumped and cushiony, with hair swept back to look like late&–period Ann&–Margret. That's when the film's previous death's&–head irony starts to grow a little domestic.
About the third time I heard Ben Foster's acting for this film praised, I went back for a second look at The Messenger and felt the same way I had the first time. Certainly this is Foster's best work; he does exemplary listening and reacting. Other critics have singled Foster out, but I feel that the reason why this is one of the few Iraq war movies to stick around is because of Harrelson. Harrelson is the repository of the film's humor. Note the way he curls his lip to suppress a smile when recalling the time he told a survivor that her grandson was "no longer with us," and the old lady thought it meant he'd defected to the terrorists.
Coming out of this and talking about Foster is like coming out of The Last Detail and talking about Randy Quaid instead of Jack Nicholson. Audiences today are distrustful of juicy, savory work; they prefer heavy&–lifters (literally the case, as when we watch Montgomery bench&–press weights), and they never seem to notice how much acting is on the nose.
Despite recent cartoony work in schlock films, Harrelson seems on the verge of something great. He's already an assured movie star, and The Messenger is proof that he is much more than that. It's (John) Wayne's world he inhabits: he's a seasoned soldier too cracked by his own experience to fit into the life of a civilian.
Writer&–turned&–director Oren Moverman did the research, and the slang sounds right; the soldiers use the word "Jody" to describe the guy who stayed behind and helped himself to your girlfriend. But he also uses ideas and symbols that could have been done without. The first shot of Sgt. Montgomery, putting drops in his wounded eye, all but screams, "This man cannot weep," just like his line "I'm not going to be offering any hugs" indicates that of course he will be. Foster's Montgomery sits solid as Harrelson judges him with the film's worst line: "Another lost child looking for a family."
The last third seems particularly shook up—a little drinking and fighting, a little bonding, this way to the hopeful ending. The locations, in New Jersey's aluminum&–siding belt, give the story realism, and Morton's sober acting seems delicate and appropriately shell&–shocked. But inside The Messenger is a much harsher and bigger film, and Harrelson might have shown the way to it.
'The Messenger' starts on Friday, Dec. 18, at the Rialto Lakeside Cinemas, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. 707.525.4840.
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