Written and directed byOren MovermanStarring Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton and Jena MaloneRated R*7.5*Goes well with: Coming Home, Stop-Loss, Flags of Our Fathers
It's ironic that Ben Foster's first leading role is playing Will Montgomery in The Messenger. After all, Foster started turning heads by portraying characters who were huge and out of control—like the crazed gunslinger Charlie Prince in the remake of 3:10 to Yuma and Alpha Dog's blistering meth addict. But this new character has just returned from Iraq and is completely cut off from his emotions, even as he's assigned the most emotional job of all, that of a casualty-notification officer.
It's certainly a change of direction for Foster, who put his trust in Oren Moverman even though the writer / director was helming his first feature.
“It became apparent very quickly on set that we were dealing with a remarkable human being and an amazing director,” Foster tells CityBeat. “He was so at ease in that position. All of us, the entire cast, were in awe of his humanity and his ability to investigate others with so much care.”
Sure, that sounds clichéd. But the scenes in which Will and his superior, Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) knock on people's doors and tell them their husbands, sons or daughters have died are staggering and very difficult to watch. Moverman frequently let the cameras run and allowed his actors to really work. And, Foster says, he used a technique that gave every one of those sequences a terrible feeling of reality.
“There wasn't a scene rehearsed,” he says. “The notifications were single takes. We never met those who we were notifying until we were knocking on the door. He was interested in not having easy answers and demanding from his actors, in a very gentle way, that we just listen to each other.”
Those deeply emotional moments impact both Will and Tony in ways they're scarcely able to deal with, especially Will, who finds himself unable to connect, except for an odd attraction to Olivia (Samantha Morton), a widow to whom he broke the news about her husband's death. The connection is nebulous and emotional, a challenge to define, even as it helps Will—still coping with guilt about events that went down in Iraq—break down the protective shell he's created. The Messenger doesn't always follow the conventions of a studio film, and even though its story occasionally meanders, it never loses sight of its painful truths.
“Suffering and the loss of loved ones is inevitable,” Foster says. “It's part of the experience of being a human being. And we don't address it; we try not to talk about it. But we do have to figure out a way, after we've lost a loved one, to continue. There's still dinner to be made. We still have to take out the garbage. What makes life worth living, the difficult and scary and thrilling part of that is when you can still say, ‘I feel what I feel, but I can still connect. I can still make friends. I can still fall in love. I may not be perfect, and I may not feel entirely whole, but I'm not going to close my heart down to suffering, and I'm not going to close it down to celebrate this very brief period in this planet.'”
Sure, The Messenger is about the Iraq war, but it doesn't advance a political agenda.
The visits Foster, Harrelson and Moverman made to wounded vets at Walter Reed Army Medical Center before the shoot deeply impacted all of them.
“It's a world I knew very little about,” Foster says. “You try to stay up on the news. You try and shake your head at the right times when they're saying what they're saying, expressing their opinions about the war. As a percentage, the conversation of the fallen soldiers, the names and number, is a difficult and chilly statistic. We have to take much better care of those that have been wounded and injured and returned home. Unless you're standing on the fucking airfield in front of the jets, one has to be a little more proactive about how we address the conversation with the soldier who is leaving this country and with one who is returning.”
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