War may be hell, but it's great for filmmakers. While the twin theatres of Iraq and Afghanistan present a daily report on the unspeakable activity of human conquest, it has also generated some of the greatest films of the past decade (Jarhead and The Hurt Locker foremost among them). Stories less told are those of officers back home charged with cleaning up the mess made overseas. In this case, it's the emotional fallout from a death in the field and the men who have to advise family that loved ones are returning in a body bag. That's the message, Will and Tony are the messengers.

A film that risks sinking in a mire of mawkish clich The Messenger is a remarkable achievement for doing exactly the opposite. There's a link to the emotional charge that made The Deer Hunter so powerful, a film with which it shares a number of common themes. It also seeks to expose the vulnerability of men wracked by guilt. Staff Sgt Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) has finished his tour of duty and is holding a bagful of hurt. Despite protest, he's assigned to Colonel Troy Stone (Woody Harrelson) and tasked with delivering bad news to those unwilling to hear it. There is a process and Stone is not about to let the Sergeant's emotional weakness interrupt protocol. Yet the younger man does, causing friction that divides them professionally, one that paradoxically snaps them together socially. The dynamic is complicated further when Will befriends a newly widowed mother (Samantha Morton), a liaison that challenges the structure of all their lives.

Performances are nothing short of astounding. Six Feet Under's Ben Foster, more often an underutilised talent found dwelling in sub-par horror films, rises to the challenge of a complicated role. He throws every bit of anger, guilt and vulnerability at Will to make him a haunting character: sometimes endearing, often frightening, always compelling. In fine support are Harrelson and Morton who tone down their occasional excesses to bring a welcome depth to the film by spreading the emotional wealth.

Courageously for a debut director (Moverman is better known as the writer of I'm Not There), he resists the temptation to romanticise his story, preferring to concentrate on the central, painful male dynamic that dominates affairs. Consequently, The Messenger retains a hard edge as he examines the emotional discord of men bonding under duress while opening a softness in our response. In the end, their message is simple - we all need a hug from time to time.


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Ben Foster
Woody Harrelson
Samantha Morton

Oren Moverman

Oren Moverman
Allesandro Camon


MA / 113 minutes

November 11, 2010
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moviereview colin fraser film movie australia review critic flicks