After a debut at Sundance ’09 and an award-winning stint at the Berlinale, Oren Moverman’s “The Messenger” comes to US audiences this Friday in a limited release. The film stars Ben Foster (in his first starring role) as Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, who, with Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), is part of the Casualty Notification Office in the U.S. Army. He receives his assignment after becoming injured and now works in a unit whose sole job is to notify families of their loved ones’ death while serving. Throughout the film, Montgomery and Stone develop a friendship that must help them both stay detached from the families they interact with and prevent them from letting their job get to their heads. Samantha Morton co-stars as Kelly, the wife of a soldier who has died. On top of the Peace Prize and the Silver Bear for best script at Berlin, Ben Foster just received a nomination for the Gotham Breakthrough Award and the film has been receiving consistently positive reviews.
In an interview with Moverman on the New York Times Carpetbagger Blog, Moverman says, ““I can’t really do anything about that other than make the best film I could, but I think that people are far more open to looking at how this war affected the people who fought it.” The article goes on to say, “Lots of directors here have made films about the casualties of war, but very few, if any, have ever picked up a gun. Mr. Moverman served as a paratrooper in the Israeli army from 1984 to 1988, including service during the first intifada.”
The New Yorker‘s David Denby praises the film’s writing team and director, “The picture was written not by Americans but by two foreign-born men working in Hollywood—Alessandro Camon, an Italian, and Oren Moverman, the director, who is a four-year veteran of the Israeli military. If these two missed certain shades of American colloquial speech, my ear didn’t detect it. The movie is by turns loquacious and raptly silent, and Moverman, directing for the first time, is tremendously talented at handling actors; he gives them the time and the space to work out characters who have layers and corners and shadows. We get to know these men well, yet we still think of them as mysterious.”
In Variety, Peter Debruge situates the film within the larger genre of Iraq War films, “Joining such recent Iraq War films as ‘Grace Is Gone’ and ‘The Lucky Ones’ in addressing combat’s toll on the homefront, ‘The Messenger’ manages to be both practical and patriotic in the same breath, zeroing in on one of the most painful aspects of wartime…Though much of the film focuses on their off hours, the episodes of the two officers at work prove challenging. Such scenes of sudden grief are familiar to most auds (the mother collapsing in her doorway in ‘Saving Private Ryan’), but ‘The Messenger’ views the exchange from the p.o.v. of the men tasked with breaking the news. Montgomery has a difficult time standing by during these encounters (featuring strong, brief appearances by actors such as Steve Buscemi) — and in the case of Morton’s Army wife, he goes back to check up on her, an admirable sensitivity complicated by a highly inappropriate sexual attraction.”
In The Hollywood Reporter, Justin Lowe focuses on Moverman’s style, “Already an experienced screenwriter, debut director Oren Moverman’s intense two-hander endeavors to focus exclusively on the home front and perhaps avoid the quagmire of issues surrounding other Iraq-related films. But the war is constantly in the background, from Montgomery’s combat wounds and frequent episodes of PTSD-induced rage to Stone’s remorse over never having seen action…Moverman adopts a functional directing style that gives full rein to the actors’ impressive performances, although the widescreen image draws unflattering attention to some of the more subjective Steadicam sequences.”
Marshall Fine‘s review on the Huffington Post hopes that the film does not get lost in the mix like other Iraq War films, “virtually every film about Iraq – good, bad, fiction and documentary – has died a miserable death in theaters. I tend to think it has less to do the movies’ flaws or merits and more to do with a national sense of shame and denial – at allowing ourselves to be suckered by George W. Bush and his ruthless shills into supporting the quagmire/fiasco. It will be too bad if that same fate awaits Oren Moverman’s The Messenger, as powerful and restrained a drama as you could wish for. Iraq is a presence but it’s never shown. Indeed, this is a drama that could have used any war as its context and made the same point: that all war ends tragically for too many, no matter what the objective or outcome.”