DVD Review: The Messenger
The Messenger was the only awards-season contender from last year that I didn’t get a chance to see in theaters, mostly due to its very limited release. The DVD comes out tomorrow, so here’s a review for those of you who are like me and don’t have an “art house” theater within a 2-hour driving radius.
My favorite American film from 2009 was the underappreciated Brothers. The Messenger treads in the same water, but it presents a different angle on the “war at home” story. There is a brief scene in Brothers where two men dressed in uniform arrive at the front door of Natalie Portman’s character and inform her that her husband has died in combat. They deliver the message, leave and are never heard from again. The Messenger tells their story.
Ben Foster (3:10 to Yuma) stars as a decorated war hero who, with three months left on his tour of duty, is assigned the job of notifying fallen soldiers’ families of their death. The opening scene shows Forster being paid a visit by his now-ex girlfriend, played by Jena Malone (Donnie Darko). The bulk of the rest of the film is an episodic series of these missions as Foster’s character learns the ropes from his superior, a stone cold hard ass played by Woody Harrelson (Zombieland). It’s a lot like Up in the Air, just a more serious and intense version of it.
Each of these “deliveries of death” are composed of different circumstances and obstacles. One of these missions leads them to an angry and violent father, played by Steve Buscemi (Fargo) in an outstanding cameo role. Buscemi is so great in his comedic roles that we often forget how tremendous of an actor he truly is.
Foster’s ethics are put to question when he develops a relationship with one widow (Samantha Morton, Control) who greets the messengers in a strangely grateful, almost apologetic manner. It’s quite the dilemma, as the soldier runs the risk of looking like a dirtbag for pursuing another soldier’s widow and she is afraid to look like a slut who isn’t mourning her husband’s death. The relationship is brilliantly set-up, but it isn’t developed as elaborately as I would have liked. I never really bought into the attraction between the two as anything more than sympathetic sexual tension.
The movie is stunningly shot and the script by writer/director Oren Moverman is filled with engaging and natural exchanges. It’s also got a beautiful guitar-driven score, reminiscent of Slash’s score from The Wrestler. The first half of the film offers all the makings of a classic, but the film devolves into meandering melodramatic territory from there. Aside from one scene of gut-wrenching dialogue between Harrelson and Foster, we are fed a mess of drunkenness, pity and self-loathing.
The DVD released by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch’s Oscilloscope Laboratories, which also brought us the excellent Wendy and Lucy, features a really neat cardboard case and some exceptional artwork. Admit it, these things matter when considering whether or not a movie is worth adding to your collection. It’s also got some really cool extras, including a downloadable shooting script.
While I still prefer Brothers as a whole, the acting in The Messenger might actually be superior. Harrelson earned every bit of his Oscar nomination and Ben Foster’s deeply emotional performance firmly reasserts him among the frontline of up-and-coming leading men.
RIYL: Brothers, Tigerland, Coming Home.