Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Messenger

(Oren Moverman, USA, 2009)

Unfortunately, a string of well-crafted vignettes that never fully cohere. Taken separately, many of the individual pieces deserve admiration. Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson are fantastic, deftly playing off each others' bravado and vulnerability. Samantha Morton is, as usual, spot-on, although her character doesn't get the same kind of care the script gives to the two male roles. It's well-shot, evenly paced, and avoids the kind of easy emotional notes that are endemic to the wounded-warrior film, in which characters are given fifty-yard stares and sudden bouts of violence, but not actual development. The Messenger manages, for the most part, to address the emotional toll of combat without reverting to cliche - mostly through its attention to the quotidian details of the protagonists' duties. Unfortunately, these elements, even when combined, don't contribute to a memorable story.

And that speaks directly to the problem - a marked lack of narrative urgency, and a setting that feels far too familiar. We've been here before, heard the stories about guns and bombs and guilt-wracked soldiers, some of whom manage to get by, and some of whom break down. Even if Moverman manages to imbue the genre with appreciated subtlety, it doesn't change the overall sense of exhaustion that an audience encounters when faced with this well-worn territory. Because as well-executed as the film is, it isn't adding up all that well. There's a feint towards an ethical dilemma, where Foster's character becomes attracted to Morton's bereaved wife, but this is treated, like the rest of the scenes, as an episodic interlude, and doesn't significantly contribute to the development of either character. Morton confesses to Foster that she's relieved her husband is gone - that he had become, in her eyes, irredeemably warped by war. But this is revealed in a lengthy monologue that feels theatrical and belabored, for all of its striving towards pathos. I'm aware that this could very well be part of the point - that the story is relating the repetitive drudgery of the death-notifiers work, and the general pointlessness of the war when confronted with the tragic toll in human life, the lack of direction, no end in sight, and all that. And it is effective at generating a sense of outrage over the state of perpetual war that we're currently in. But that's a losing proposition, from the perspective of the audience's emotional engagement. You just wind up feeling spent and bitter. There are genuinely moving moments, but they are counterbalanced by a refusal to show the kind of change of character that would generate some sustained interest.

In the end, it's a frustrating disappointment - one of those films whose heart is in the right place, but one that can't seem to see beyond the benevolence of its intentions and its own carefully-constructed sense of sympathy. It is remarkably well-constructed, but unfocused and redundant feeling. Rather than add up to a vital, multi-layered whole, it remains a series of scenes, like a high-level workshop for writing and acting; related, but not finally essential to, each other .

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