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With: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, Steve Buscemi, Eamonn Walker, Brendan Sexton III, Halley Feiffer
Written by: Oren Moverman, Alessandro Camon
Directed by: Oren Moverman
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexual content/nudity
Running Time: 105
Date: 01/19/2009

The Messenger (2009)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Hereby Notified

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Almost all of the Iraq War movies of the past seven years share the same fate; they open with a small measure of critical approval, and then quietly disappear into box office oblivion. Even a masterpiece like The Hurt Locker, with its near-unanimous critical ranking as the best movie of 2009, as well as six Oscars -- including Best Picture and a landmark Best Director -- took in a mere $16.4 million in the U.S. This makes it the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner in decades; Woody Allen used to boast that his Annie Hall had that honor, but no longer. That aside, if there's one other Iraq movie that deserves a little more attention, it's Oren Moverman's The Messenger, which also -- at the very least -- came away with two Oscar nominations of its own.

The Messenger plays a little like the quiet flip side of The Hurt Locker, with no explosions or excitement. It takes place almost entirely on United States soil. Going in, and judging by the poster and the DVD box, it looks like another very somber, noble, "remember the soldiers" piece. The idea of watching it feels like a chore, and not watching it makes you feel guilty. But within minutes, it becomes clear that this is not that kind of movie. It's warm, and engaging. The characters are interesting. You want to spend more time with them. The movie effortlessly lifts you up and carries you along, like any non-Iraq drama should do.

With just a few months left to go on his tour of duty, a wounded war veteran, staff sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), finds himself assigned to notification duty. This means that he gets the not-very-uplifting job of informing the next of kin (or "NOK" in army speak) of the deaths of their loved ones in the war. He answers to Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson, who was nominated for an Oscar), who knows the job well. His experience has left him cynical and tough, and he knows that the slightest variation in the rules and regulation could lead to a disastrous situation. Will and Tony meet a variety of characters and witness many different forms of grief, from screaming and crying to quiet shock. Will becomes fascinated with, and then attracted to, a beautiful new widow, Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton), and despite the rules, begins trying to see her again. Surprisingly, though Will and Tony clash over this situation, they also begin growing closer, and Will begins to understand what makes Tony tick.

Screenwriter Moverman (Jesus' Son, I'm Not There, Married Life) makes his directorial debut with quiet observance, focusing on genuine characters that evolve in an organic way. No character is purely black-and-white; each has his or her hidden areas and shades of gray. Of course, with characters this rich and intelligent, it follows that Foster, Harrelson and Morton deliver superb performances. Refreshingly, Moverman does not preach his opinions about the war, or condescend to those who may disagree with him, as many Iraq War movies do. Indeed, aside from The Hurt Locker, it's one of the best and most useful looks at human feelings in a wartime atmosphere; it even makes attempts to look forward to a potentially better future, rather than dwelling on the horrors of the present.

It's tough, grim subject matter to be sure, but that only makes up a small portion of The Messenger. The brave few who actually try it will find themselves rewarded by intelligent, graceful and touching filmmaking. Oscilloscope has released the DVD and Blu-Ray with a commentary track by Moverman, Harrelson, Foster, and producer Lawrence Inglee. We get a documentary about notification officers, "reflections from the set," an onstage Q&A with the cast and crew, and the Oscar-nominated screenplay in PDF format. Writer Anthony Swofford (Jarhead) provides liner notes.

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