Blu-ray Review: THE MESSENGER - Worthy War Drama Buoyed by Terrific Performances

Ben Foster and the Oscar nominated Woody Harrelson head a compelling cast in this thoughtful drama about the side effects of war.

rating: 3.5

The Messenger, or "that Iraq war drama Woody Harrelson received an Oscar nomination for", is finally out on Blu-ray tomorrow - which means UK viewers finally have a decent chance to catch up with it following it's half-hearted UK theatrical release earlier this year - nearly a full two years after it struggled to recoup just over $1 million Stateside late in 2009. Whilst the film is solid enough - with superb supporting turns from Samantha Morton, Jena Malone and Steve Buscemi (in a powerful cameo as a bereaved father) - it isn't hard to see why it might have been a tough sell for audiences in the US. In it loveable oddball Woody Harrelson and the intense, ever-watchable Ben Foster (The Mechanic) are cast as Casualty Notification Agents in the US Army, tasked with breaking the news to next of kin (NOKs) that their loved one has been killed in service of their country. Whilst writer-director Oren Moverman's feature isn't overtly critical (AKA "unpatriotic") or even explicitly anti-war, American audiences chose not to see a movie about the dead soldiers of an ongoing conflict in spite of its critical acclaim. In fact to date Iraq war movies have generally failed to set the box office alight almost regardless of quality, with even the Best Picture winning The Hurt Locker and Damon/Greengrass Bourne copycat Green Zone struggling to find an audience. Foster plays Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery, a decorated war hero injured in Iraq and forced to see out his last term of military service working under Harrelson's judgemental, protocol obsessed, recovering alcoholic Capt. Tony Stone on a job where, as Stone reflects, there is no such thing as a satisfied customer. Montgomery is a loner whose pre-war sweetheart (Malone) is due to marry another and he doesn't instantly warm to his new assignment or commanding officer, wishing he was able to continue serving on the frontline. Things soon get complicated when he begins a covert and morally dubious relationship with Morton's distressed war widow, after passing on the news of her husband's death. Alongside the personal stories that are the focus of the movie, Moverman shows a variety of responses to the grim news that the soldiers bring and emphasises the importance of their "sacred" duty within the army, with the US military keen to inform the bereaved of their loss first in the age of 24 hour news and the internet. The realist portrayal of this sombre mission is quite far removed from the depiction we've seen on film previously: here it isn't a hearse-like official vehicle that arrives solemnly outside the house, bringing with it a folded American flag and a priest, but a mundane consumer car parked around the block and soldiers who deliver the news plainly and without gilding the lily. Harrelson makes clear (in an authentic but slightly clumsy early expository scene) all the rules and regulations surrounding this duty, but the film questions the apparent coldness of the way the news is broken, with that providing the main tension between Montgomery and Stone. The film offers no answers and it is left up to us to decide whether Harrelson's militaristic pragmatism is preferable to Foster's more hands-on approach, just as it is left up to the audience to consider just how respectful and sensitive US Army procedure is to NOKs. The Messenger is a worthy and interesting addition to the fast-growing canon of Iraq war movies which covers a very different face of the conflict, refreshingly free of fervent flag waving or military fetishism. The performances are gripping and, though the dialogue is occasionally clunky and melodramatic, the actors involved make it work for the most part. Perhaps if the film had been more commercially successful and won a couple of Oscars some of the cracks would be harder to ignore, but free from hype this engaging, well intentioned curio can be taken on its own terms as a robust if unexceptional success.


No extras at all here, unless you count the trailers that play before you reach the menu screen. Play movie, scene selection and subtitles on/off are the only options. It's odd for such a recent and critically acclaimed American feature to be so lacking in bonus materials, but here we are. The Messenger is released on Blu-ray and DVD from tomorrow.
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.