For this new feature, periodically, I will first read a version of a film’s screenplay available online, then watch that film to see how its cast and crew have manifested it and how the finished film compares and contrasts with my perception of the script. The reviews of these films will hence emphasize the role of the screenplay in cinema and the filmmaking process, and how interpretations and visions of a screenplay can differ and interact with one another.
The Messenger takes as its premise a trope frequently abused in crime-, medical- and military-themed television and film. Most network TV, I imagine, has devolved into a series of tropes like that: clichéd setups that mainly serve to help up-and-coming actors gather footage for audition tapes, showcasing their ability to display the fundamental emotions of man. What results is an industrial contrivance of human experience—a pathetic attempt by commerce to reduce life into a series of über-familiar, easily arranged and packaged situations; and to reduce acting into a streamlined, unskilled, assembly-line job. Actors hoping to (at least eventually) create art are cheated into creating cheap products, consumed by their audience like cookie dough, released into the plumbing, and forgotten. The trope I want to discuss in this context is the Breaking of Bad News: the cop or the soldier going into the house to inform some folks that their child/spouse/parent has died in this and that way, followed inexorably by an anguished reaction from the loved ones. Even great films like The Right Stuff and Saving Private Ryan fall back on this set piece early in their running times. Part of The Messenger’s innovation is that it focuses on the army veterans who are given this unenviable duty, and turns them from traditional ciphers to fleshed-out characters, trapped in an obligation with no alternative that threatens to suck the life out of them.
The Messenger of the title is SSgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), an Iraq War hero, back home blind in one eye with a busted knee and a deserted girlfriend (Jena Malone), who is assigned to the Casualty Notification team to fill out the remainder of his service. Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson)—a Gulf War vet with a country drawl, hard marble eyes and a bitter, tightened curl for a smile—will be his mentor. Tony wastes no time in lecturing a beleaguered Will on the script they must follow for each victim’s family, on the points of etiquette, on all the bits of wisdom he’s picked up from experience. The process is—like most things in the military—a tradition, bound in ritual and performance. Time and again it is emphasized that the duty, no matter how agonizing, is an honorable one, and a necessary one, as Will and Tony are in competition with another, more impulsive group of performers who feel it their job to break bad news: the media. This is one of the few military films I know of where all the blood and carnage (well, most of it) is well off-screen, and none of it is necessary here. The whole film throbs with the aura of the army—the competition, the stories and memories, the death and pain, the tighter-than-tight brotherhood, the inescapable sense of commitment that swallows up entire lives. “This is a zero-defect mission,” Tony tells Will. “A pure hit-and-git operation.” These are men who view everything through the lens of fighting for the U.S. Beaten as they are, they’ll never leave the military.
As directed by Oren Moverman—a native son of the ultra-militarized Israel—and written by him and Alessandro Camon, The Messenger has an understanding of the scripted, essentially fictive (viz., literary, theatrical, cinematic, etc.) quality of Breaking Bad News, yet it never forgets that the emotions behind the script are genuine. There are five scenes in which Will and Tony do their duty, and none of them feel like a retread of a tired trope. They all have their own unique narrative and characters, which are so well written and well acted, they feel like excerpts from other, larger films, in which Will and Tony are merely bit roles that cannot be explored in depth. One such excerpt even has a famous character actor lending his talents to it. Another—this one focused on Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton), a war widow who turns out to be by far the most stoic of Will and Tony’s encounters—gets weaved deeply into the central narrative, as Will becomes fascinated by her strength and gets involved in her life. The other three fragments, however, do no more than intersect with Will and Tony’s story, functioning as miniature domestic war dramas in which our two protagonists are restrained to their rigid script. The Messenger in this way has the feel of a backstage drama, showing the inner lives of two men whose solemn duty is too often exploited for film cliché, yelling at us to recognize their humanity and trauma.
The film is just under two hours, yet its script is a terse ninety pages. Following the dictum that one page of script equals one minute of film, we should have an hour-and-a-half movie, but no—the brevity of what’s written allows the actors to expand on it. Morton does this most effectively. Her best scene comes in a monologue, in one minutes-long take, in which Olivia confesses to Will the moment when she became estranged from her late husband: “One morning, I opened the closet and one of his shirts fell off the hanger. I picked it up. It smelled of something awful. It wasn’t another woman, or cigarettes, or booze; I could have handled that. I smelled rage. Fear. …The man he turned into over there. The man I started hating.” Jeez—can you imagine what rage and fear smell like?! Now, realize that there’s a difference between reading that great patch of dialogue straight through and seeing Morton perform it. It’s breathtaking. (Also, kudos to Moverman and Camon for calculatedly avoiding the usual clichés of “another woman” and “cigarettes” and “booze.”) Foster has a few monologues—in particular, his war story, which he tells in catharsis near the end—which he could’ve afforded to slow down a little more and inject with a little more pathos. Plus, he occasionally (mostly in his scenes with Morton) gets a wild-eyed look that seems off-putting and out of character for Will. Otherwise, he’s solid. Harrelson’s acting choices are the most revealing. The script gives Tony multiple soliloquies in which he waxes rhapsodic about military funerals, the military-industrial complex, sex as an antidote to war, etc., and on paper, these speeches appear weighty and thematically fraught. Harrelson knows better. His mannerisms and mood expose those speeches for what they are: hot air, talk without walk, the lunatic ravings of an alcoholic three years sober and on the verge of a relapse. Believe the hype: it’s a masterful performance.
Some thoughts on Tony, since he is the film’s most famous aspect and the source of one of its two Oscar nods (the other being the screenplay): What drives him to commit to this horrible duty? He is a gristly soldier, almost trigger-happy, geared up to fight, claiming to be experienced, yet there is a constant acknowledgement that the Gulf War “wasn’t much of a war.” Does Tony know enough about combat to appreciate the toll of war, or is Casualty Notification all that he knows? Perhaps bearing bad news is how he registers combat, how he gets involved with and feels the war that he longs for. In full uniform, he insists on perfect decorum. His biggest divergence with Will regards their perspectives on touching the “next of kin.” Protocol demands that it be avoided, and Tony sides with that, yet Will understands that sometimes, there is a need for affection. Look at the physical interaction (which could’ve been a tad subtler) between Will and Olivia. Tony clearly expresses his disapproval of this—yet his sex drive and proclivity for one-night flings are strong for a guy his age. The dichotomy between Tony’s military persona and how he is when his guard is down is wildly broad. In the film’s final act, the two men take a break from their duties to go on a raucous vacation at a chalet in the woods. Tony returns to booze (a well-worn trope, treated sensitively and uniquely by Harrelson), and Will joins in, and the two have an intimate bonding experience during which the world around them and its idiosyncrasies don’t quite matter. The military creates the strongest bonds of friendship imaginable, and Will and Tony’s bond is no weaker than that formed between men who train and go into combat together, their discrepancies in age and personality notwithstanding. Finally, there’s a scene at the end where, after an hour and a half of exhibiting raw masculinity, the façade collapses and Tony breaks down in tears. Why? Has the toll of war and duty gotten to him at last? Is he an insatiable masochist, desperate for something more than what he got in Kuwait? Is it the alcoholism? Or is it simply a sudden need to be vulnerable and human?
Reading the script, I got a feeling that the narrative fizzles out in the final scene, and the film doesn’t really improve on that. Yes, Will reaches some form of closure and all but decides to embrace his new duty to the country—but let’s face it, there’s no way material like this can ever have a perfect ending. Lives and stories end, but wars and conflicts don’t, and neither do the odysseys of the world’s Wills and Tonys. Sometimes, we just have to run with that, and even when we don’t think we can, we do. The character actor to whom I referred earlier returns for one more scene later in the film, and I get a sense from that scene that there is a concrete possibility of healing for all the loved ones of the war’s dead. Will and Tony may not always see it. They, and we with them, see oblivious men and women casually going about their days only to be shattered by catastrophe. But they have lives and narratives that will persist—and so do our two leading men. Their duty is ugly but necessary. The Messenger is wise in depicting patriotism—American flags, yellow ribbons, bumper stickers, the recruiting effort, funereal ritual—without falling for it, because fervent patriotism too often confuses us into assuming that the dead of war died for their country. We don’t really know what they fought and died for. All we can say is that they died, and our condolences go to them. It’s difficult to do that—because it’s easier to embellish tragedy with saccharine notions of hope, religiosity and not dying in vain—but it is an essential good, and The Messenger is inherently moral in bringing the men who do that for a living front and center.