Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Angels of depth

A moving look at the lives of the notifiers

Posted on Wed, Jan 27, 2010 at 4:00 AM

****
The Messenger
Studio: GOOD Worldwide, Mark Gordon Company
Rated: R
Cast: Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster
Director: Oren Moverman
WorkNameSort: Messenger, The
Our Rating: 4.00

'You're thinking, 'Shit, I'm a goddamned decorated war hero with three months left to serve and they draft me into the Angels of Death squadron to surf a fuckin' ocean of grief. Am I right?â?� asks stone-faced Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) of his new subordinate, Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster). He is right, and it's an unforgiving ocean.

Harrelson's Stone is, on the surface, a straight-laced casualty notification officer who lives by a set of rules and procedures that give him maximum emotional protection from the grief, anger and denial that overcomes the 'hit-and-runâ?� victims of his service. He's charged with beating the media and the Internet to the punch to inform soldiers' next of kin of their loved ones' death. It's an ugly but noble task.

Montgomery, meanwhile, questions that nobility. As played by Foster, his war-wounded face, svelte physique and tightly wired, inwardly ferocious demeanor betray an often-misguided depth of emotion within. He longs to reach out and console the devastated families, to touch their shoulders and assure them. When the new guy takes a special interest in a particular widow, Stone can smell trouble coming from a mile away.

The Messenger is the first film from Oren Moverman as a director, and it's a fine piece of work. Moverman, as a screenwriter, crafted the beautiful Jesus' Son and helped Todd Haynes navigate the treacherous waters of I'm Not There, and he shows equal bravery here. He lets these characters find each other gradually, even permitting a lost-weekend distraction, but he never lets go of the narrative. Even if his notifiers would rather forget the duty they're charged with, Moverman never lets them or the audience fail to remember.

These doorstep visits, however, begin to feel like a parade of sadness, as if Moverman wants to show us every form that unbearable grief can take: spitting in the messengers' faces, vomiting, shouting, even polite hand-shaking. Every time their pager goes off for another job, it's a new opportunity for a devastating pièce de résistance and there are times that Moverman's camera seems to perceive the task as an opportunity, which is off-putting. But those moments are brief in an otherwise stellar glimpse at a little-known (and little-desired) career.

Ultimately, this is Ben Foster's showcase, and the 29-year-old actor rises to the occasion. From his deceptively complex role as a mentally challenged kid on TV's Freaks and Geeks to a mutant detour in X-Men: The Last Stand, and especially in his portrayal of the psychotic Charlie Prince in 3:10 to Yuma ' one of the best performances of 2007 ' Foster's talent continues to grow in unexpected ways.

Here, he's all visceral; there isn't a trace of an unfrayed nerve in his body, and that extends to his empathetic devotion. His Montgomery is something that Harrelson's vet hasn't seen before ' he's 100 percent human, and it's remarkable that embodying something so simple could be so disarming.

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