This film seems to have got a bit lost in the general failure of Iraq/Afghanistan war films – at least in the US. I quite enjoyed it. It’s a little predictable, but there are fine performances from the three leads (Ben Foster is clearly a talented young actor) and it is shot in a simple style making good use of the ‘Scope image (cinematography by Bobby Bukowski). I’ve seen the film described as 1970s American Cinema. I’m not sure about that but it’s certainly using drama to say something intelligent.
The film begins with Woody Harrelson as Captain Tony Stone, a long-serving US Army officer awaiting the appointment of a new man to his team detailed to inform relatives of the deaths of their loved ones. The new recruit, Sgt Will Montgomery is played by Ben Foster. This character has only a few more months to serve after being seriously injured in Afghanistan. He isn’t very keen on the new job – which must be undertaken with a strict adherence to the rules, including no physical contact with the relatives.
The new pairing develop a relationship slowly and Montgomery inevitably develops a forbidden contact with a widow played by Samantha Morton. The narrative swings between a potential relationship with Morton’s character and the dynamics of the relationship between the two soldiers. The only other significant element is Montgomery’s ex girlfriend’s upcoming wedding.
The film is directed and co-written by an Israeli migrant to the US, Oren Moverman. It is Moverman’s first feature as a director but he has a track record of interesting-sounding scripts (including the Dylan biopic, I’m Not There and Jesus’s Son (1999) – with Samantha Morton is a small part). Moverman did his compulsory military service in the Israeli armed forces. I confess to a certain wariness about what that experience has produced in other directors, but his take on the war is I think nicely summed up by one of the posters on IMdB who suggested that The Messenger is not an ‘anti-war’ film as such but one that simply tries to represent the hurt and emotional trauma that war brings.