' Cinema Romantico: The Messenger

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Messenger

In "Saving Private Ryan" there is that scene after the D-Day opening where the military man comes to tell the Mother Ryan that three of her sons are dead. It is slathered in mournful music. There is the picturesque shot of the military man's car kicking up gravel and dust in the form of a reflection in Mother Ryan's window. The military man solemnly marches up the walk and Mother Ryan steps onto the porch, breaking down, dropping to her knees. It is melodrama of the highest order. Orin Moverman's "The Messenger" is about men of the military who must tell loved ones their son or daughter or husband or wife has been killed fighting overseas. But there is no music, no elegiac camera work, no poetry. It is reality.

Yet, importantly, the film is never drenched in reality. Moverman never manipulates, never goes for sentimentality, and the camera shakes a little bit here and there but it's not infected with steadicam.

Ben Foster is Sgt. Will Montgomery, back home from Iraq, hailed as a war hero, and he meets up with a young woman, Kelly (Jena Malone), we gather is his wife or his significant other except after the brief opening we realize she is not. She used to be. Now she's engaged to someone else. He acts as if this does not bother him. We know better.

He spends late nights stalking his drab apartment in sunglasses, blasting music, unresponsive to his neighbors' complaints.

He is assigned to a "bereavement notification" unit under the tutelage of Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson, perfectly cast). The men are polar opposites. Where Montgomery is silent, Stone is a talker, an endless talker. Where Montgomery is a drinker, Stone is a recovering alcoholic. Where Montgomery pines for the girl who got away, Stone is an unapologetic flirt.

Stone gives him the basics of the job - stick to the script, only talk to the NOK (Next Of Kin, as designated by the deceased soldier), get in and get out, don't hug them, don't touch them in any capacity. Every NOK offers something new, usually unpleasant.

They have to inform a spouse (Samantha Morton) her husband was killed in action. Rather than get upset she is extremely polite. Why? "We come into these people's lives," Montgomery says, "and we don't know anything about them." Stone says they don't want to know. But Montgomery does. Against his superior's advisement he begins a tentative relationship with this widow. The exterior of it all may seem familiar but it does not go precisley the way you would expect.

The five stages of grief are generally considered to be the following: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. As the film progresses the more you may start to realize how Moverman and his co-writer Alessandro Camon have structured the film to resemble these five stages - Will denying the reality of his relationship with Kelly, angry over whatever haunts him in Iraq and his new position with the army, in a sense bargaining that if he helps this woman maybe the world in general will help him. And so on.

The grieving process is universal. Death is universal. These are all things we have to deal with at one time or another during our lives. The circumstances, however, surrounding it are never the same. They differ from person to person, family to family.

Every soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan has an individual story. We can't know them all and we can't tell them all. It's simply impossible. But we need to remember every single one of them does have a story and every single one of them is mighty important.

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