A Shirt That Smells of Rage and Fear
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(The Messenger was picked up for distribution by Oscilloscope Pictures. It opens on 11/13/09, in New York City and Washington D.C., followed by a much wider release on 11/20/09. Go here to learn more. Note: This review was first posted in conjunction with the film’s world premiere at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.)
I saw two Iraq War-themed films at this year’s Sundance, Ross Katz’s Taking Chance and Oren Moverman’s The Messenger. Both were strangely similar in their plot and characters. Both films are about soldiers stationed at home who must deal with the casualties of war stateside. In Taking Chance, Kevin Bacon is a clench-jawed, highly decorated officer who volunteers to escort the body of a fallen soldier to his family in Montana as a way of dealing with his guilt over the level of his commitment to the war effort. In The Messenger, Ben Foster is Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, a clenched jaw Iraq war vet, who is forced into joining Gulf War vet Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) in the task of notifying Next of Kin that their child or husband just died in the war. Taking Chance is a solemn, sober look at the pain of losing a loved one, but ultimately it is a comforting film that wants to wrap all of America into a big group hug. The Messenger directly confronts the rage, anger and fear of the Iraq war veteran in an honest, non-manipulative style, and in the end it provides no easy answers. Guess which one I preferred?
Fiction filmmakers who have taken on the Iraq war subject seem to be mostly concerned with finding a non-partisan way to ‘heal’ (NPH for short). Brian De Palma’s Redacted or Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah are rare Iraq-themed films in that they clearly present the point of view that our presence in Iraq is wrong and corrupt and they don’t seem interested at all in the NPH angle. The problem that I have with most Iraq war films is that they are so intent on getting us to heal that they are willing to skip the rage and anger stage. Rage and anger are negative emotions and negative feelings usually don’t lead to big box office sales; since most filmmakers are more focused on entertainment rather than truth-telling, it is understandable why the rage stage would be minimized. But the war is still on-going, we still continue to kill innocent Iraqis and in that process young Americans are still being sent home in body bags. Every American, no matter how Republican, questions the value and the strategy of the Iraqi conflict. It is still an unresolved, constantly evolving issue, we are nowhere near being able to reach the healing stage.
As a country, I feel that we are still in the anger and fear stage, and for this reason I believe Taking Chance is way premature. I myself am nowhere near the healing, group hug stage; I don’t think I can ever get there until we as a country face the fact that the Iraq war was not protection or revenge driven but profit driven. Perhaps after Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and Powell (who could have prevented the war if he hadn’t knowingly lied to the UN) are all prosecuted by a War Crimes Tribunal can I start to get with the ‘healing’ concept. In the meantime, I feel that punching a wall or listening to black-metal at a high volume is a very appropriate and honest reaction. In The Messenger, this is exactly what Ben Foster’s character Montgomery does, when he isn’t pacing back and forth or drinking or chasing bar flooseys or beating up random frat boys with his new partner (Harrelson).
As official US Army representatives, Montgomery and Stone must stick to a carefully worded script when they approach the Next of Kin. There can be no touching, Stone tells Montgomery on his first day. Usually the family members scream when they hear the news, sometimes they spit right in the face of the messenger, sometimes they hit him, but sometimes, as in the case of Olivia Pitterson—the wife played by Samantha Morton—they seem oddly relieved. Stone at first guesses that her reaction is due to the fact that she has already moved onto another man, the way Montgomery’s girlfriend (Jena Malone) moved on from him. Later, as Montgomery starts to stalk the strangely detached wife, he learns that her husband returned once already, yet he returned as another man, angry and haunted, as are so many war vets. For him, volunteering for another tour seemed the only alternative. After he left this last time, she found one of his dirty shirts in the bottom of the closet. She tried cleaning it over and over again, but it still smelled of ‘rage, fear and anger.’ Strangely, it was hanging on the wash line, finally cleansed of the smell, when Montgomery notified her of his death.
This is a pretty complicated dramatic situation. You have a widow who doesn’t really mind that her husband has been killed (his spirit was killed way before his body died) and you have a fellow soldier trying to date her, or ‘exploit her grief’ as Stone sees it. Neither character is able to really announce their true feelings and intentions because they themselves are not that conscious of them; on top of that, guilt or shame prevents them from openly acknowledging those kinds of mixed emotions. By this time in the film we are pretty connected to Foster’s character’s anger and stress, and so we know that he desperately needs some sort of honesty; therefore, it is understandable why he’d be attracted to her slightly disconnected vibe and her quiet sadness. Moverman’s courage to tread in such loaded and complicated dramatic territory pays off because he not only is an amazing dialogue writer, he has really put in his time figuring out how to achieve the equivalent level of honesty with his camera and actors.
In one scene, Montgomery tries to kiss Olivia. She seems to want him but the kiss just doesn’t happen, it doesn’t feel right, she quietly steps away to fix a cup of coffee. It’s an awkward moment and one would assume that the scene would end there. On the page it probably did, but by hanging with Foster, alone in the frame after Morton walks out, we get a deeper sense of Montgomery’s solitude. When he starts to slink and melt toward the fridge, the camera moves with him as he slowly pours himself into a chair. The awkward almost-kiss might have been the climax of the scene on the page, but it is these beats with Montgomery afterwards that really demonstrates Moverman’s ability to enter into these characters’ inner lives. These kinds of cinematic moments, devoid of dialogue or action, are unfortunately rare in American cinema. The American way is to assume your audience is the equivelent of a brain dead, knee-twitching video-game playing 15-year-old , go for the simple clear emotion and shove it down the throat, two or three times. This is what for most people passes as good direction—efficient, fun force feeding—but not here.
In the climax of the film, Montgomery and Stone go on a booze fueled weekend jag with a couple of bar flooseys. While getting drunk in a boat on the lake, they are sprayed by some passing jet skiers hooping it up. Harrelson’s irritable Stone curses them out as they zip by and, in the process, he almost falls into the water. Back on shore while tying up the boat, the jet skiers return to confront the two off-duty soldiers. Despite the fact that the there are three jets skiers, something tells us that Montgomery and Stone kicked some serious ass, but we don’t know because we cut to the next scene before the fight starts. The first shot after Montgomery and Stone approach the menacing jet skiers is Stone casually wiping his bloody nose as they drive down the road. This not only shows amazing restraint on Moverman’s part, but also a dedication to honesty and truth above easy thrills that is truly rare.
Likewise, in the next scene when they walk into Montgomery’s ex-girlfriend’s formal wedding engagement party, there is the set up for a typical grand, table standing, explosive confrontational climax, but instead we get quiet honesty. Montgomery and Stone are drunk, bloody and wearing torn t-shirts from the fight. They may enter with a cocky swagger intending to shock, but once they fail to receive anything more than passing glances by most of the party they start to feel self-conscious and stupid. After the cocktail party we see them slouched at the dinner table and Montgomery has covered up with a sweatshirt. Most directors couldn’t even acknowledge what truly would happen in that scenario, let alone direct it in a manner that respects that deflated reality and resists the Hollywood play book that says one must always raise the stakes and go for the big gestures.
Out of the 23 films I saw at Sundance, The Messenger was head and shoulders above every other film. Moverman’s directorial debut is a clear announcement that not only can he write (I’m Not There, Jesus’ Son, Married Life), he is a director with the equivalently high level of taste and ability. The Messenger may turn out to be the one Iraq war film that finally connects with a country that is still at war and desperate for some honesty.
— Mike S. Ryan