Film review: The Messenger (MFF 2009)

The Messenger
Oscilloscope Laboratories, Omnilab Media, Sherazade Film Development, The Mark Gordon Company

STARRING Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Steve Buscemi, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, Yaya DaCosta
WRITTEN BY Alessandro Camon, Oren Moverman
PRODUCED BY Mark Gordon, Lawrence Inglee, Zach Miller
DIRECTED BY Oren Moverman

SHOT BY Bobby Bukowski
EDITED BY Alexander Hall
MUSIC BY Nathan Larson
DISTRIBUTED BY Oscilloscope Laboratories

Screened at the Milwaukee Film Festival, 2009-10-04

Ben Foster plays a soldier back from the Middle East – a very strong, very silent type, Foster’s apparent preference: quiet, smoldering intensity. Foster kicks ass. With three months till he is discharged, he is assigned to be an Angel of Death; knocking on doors and breaking bad [news] to the loved ones of recently dead soldiers (all of these scenes are experienced without cuts) under the tutelage of veteran consoler Woody Harrelson. Foster cultivates an oh-so-sensitive quiet cerebral relationship with a widow whom he follows a bit, Foster & Harrelson drive through their assignments and we get lots of male bonding, a few war stories, and more than a little time spent alone in rooms… Sorry, what was I saying? Drifted off there for a moment. It’s a big fat indie drama setup, and can join 100 more indie films about dealing with loss and starting over.

Actually Messenger was fine. Very understated – successfully so. The jokes worked. The timing was solid. Never really lingered too long (‘cept that kitchen scene). Technically there’s little wrong with it. It’s just me… wicked impatient. I was going with the film fine until three-quarters of the way through when quite suddenly I wanted to tear my hair out and/or leave immediately. I did neither. And that was for the best, I spose. Messenger wouldn’t have been endurable without the inspired casting of Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson. The rest of the cast are passably utilized with the exceptions of Jena Malone, who rises higher and whom we always appreciate, and Steve Buscemi, who, hard as he tries, should perhaps not be called upon to take on a charged emotional role (here, grieving father) – or Moverman didn’t know how to utilize him. It is his first offense, so it’s forgivable. But I really like Foster. There’s no doubt that he’s a workhorse and a very intuitive observer of emotional minutiae. He made what could’ve been a rather dull film much more engaging. And of course Harrelson is ever entertaining. Typically cast as an outspoken, loveable and intelligent enough Bumpkin, he doesn’t seem to have any problem with it. He also works very hard, and very frequently. As does Malone – and yes Buscemi too. So again: mostly great casting. Keep it up and no matter how slow your films are, they’ll remain watchable.

written by David Ashley