It's ironic — in an Oscar season clogged with overhyped and instantly tired films (albeit nothing nearly as bad as last year's The Reader), one of the few legitimately very good dramas, Oren Moverman's The Messenger, seems to have flown completely under the radar with an almost-hilarious box office total of $654,000, no awards hype, and only a selection by the AFI as one of 2009's ten notable films to show for it. But it's got the Tim Kraemer vote, and any serious student of the ciné knows that's the one that matters.
The film is an Iraq War drama — no, wait, hold your groans! — about a wounded vet played by Ben Foster back ashore assigned to fill his remaining months of service as a casualty notification officer. Under a strict code of conduct, i.e. no hugging the next of kin, he and his superior officer played by Woody Harrelson have to knock on several doors a day to inform perfect strangers that their child or spouse has been killed in action in the Middle East. Needless to say, the film isn't a comedy, although you'd be surprised how many moments of dark, understated humor there are in the interaction of Foster and Harrelson. Of course the entire film can't just be a series of casualty notifications (although there are plenty, with reactions ranging from hysterical shrieking to attacking the notification officers to straightforward denial to the vacant, shellshocked politeness of those who can't quite process what they're hearing), so Foster ends up falling for a war widow whose husband's death he informed her of, which is obscenely against military protocol, and oh dear, conflict.
If your reaction to that plot summary is a shrug, a grimace, or a generalized "I dunno..." I don't necessarily blame you, but remember, it's all in the execution, not the idea, and despite skirting dangerous closely to cliché (the film even ends at a wedding, but not in the way you may fear) The Messenger fastidiously avoids swelling melodrama and presents the experience of a veteran in a more interesting, thoughtful way than any Iraq film to date. It's helped along immensely by Ben Foster, who you may remember as the no-name actor who somehow stole 3:10 to Yuma out from under both Christian Bale and Russell Crowe. Coiled tension and hidden pain always lurks just beneath the surface of his performance, one that doesn't seem to be getting the awards hype it warrants.
Earlier in 2009 we got the first genuinely worthwhile Iraq War film, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, a film that took place almost entirely within Iraq, and now as a nice parallel we have the next worthwhile Iraq War film, The Messenger, every frame of which takes place on American soil. The films are completely different genres — The Hurt Locker an action thriller, The Messenger a quiet human drama — but both are alike in their utterly apolitical treatment of the war as a constant no longer requiring any sociological commentary. It's here, it blows, and get use to it liberals, it's probably gonna stay awhile. But if nothing else it produced a pair of worthy films last year. I'm assuming no one reading this is among the 65,400 people who saw The Messenger in theaters, but I'd easily recommend a rental.
3 Stars out of 5