2009 may finally be the year of the Iraq war. In Hollywood, that is. Filmmakers have been trying to pull off dramas about Bush's war for years now, but only this year - first with The Hurt Locker - did one truly succeed. Jump ahead a couple of months and we have another contender for best movie of the year: The Messenger.
Unlike The Hurt Locker, The Messenger is not an action movie. Hell, it doesn't even take place in Iraq. Or Afghanistan. It instead is set in the United States. Suburbia. A land far away from the horrors of war. And yet is a quintessential war drama that features two stellar performances and one of the most emotional stories of 2009.
In The Messenger, Ben Foster, who continues to attempt to lose his baby-face appearance, turns in the best performance of his career as Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, an American soldier who, after years of fighting in Iraq, is assigned for the last few months of his military career to go to the homes of parents and husbands and wives and inform them that their sons, daughters, wives or husbands have been killed in action. Paired with Captain Tony Stone, played by Woody Harrelson, the two slowly decay as their fragile minds are put to tests of emotional endurance.
Foster is incredible in the lead role. We've seen glimmers of what he's capable of in the past, most notably in 3:10 to Yuma and Alpha Dog, but here he sheds down to his core and delivers one of the most intense, emotionally raw performances of any actor this year.
Speaking of great performances, what a year it has been for Woody Harrelson. First, he received acclaim in the box office smash Zombieland, and then had the most memorable role in the epic 2012, and now turns in one of the finest performances of his career in The Messenger (which, presumably, won't be a box office smash). Harrelson has a good chance at a supporting nod for his portrayal of Captain Stone, who along with Foster brings great intensity to the role.
Beyond the performances, however, The Messenger is an excellent movie. Directed by Oren Moverman and co-written by Moverman and Alessandro Camon, the picture features an excellent screenplay, gritty direction and a fine array of supporting characters. It may be an underdog come award season, but it is a heavyweight in my book.
The Messenger's only flaws lie around the relationship between Will and a potential love interest, played by Samantha Morton. The relationship is meant to ground Will, but it's not developed enough to make a significant impact on the story - even though it appears the filmmakers intended it do so. Morton, who plays the widow of a dead soldier, shows up a few times throughout the film, but she isn't in it enough to care for how her story plays out or what happens between the two of them. And yet, the final scene of the movie focuses on them as if the writers forgot they had an unfinished storyline to wrap up.
The Messenger isn't perfect, but it is one of the best movies of 2009 nonetheless. Featuring stellar performances from Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson, The Messenger is a force to be reckoned with.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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