First time director Oren Moverman, who also co-wrote with Alessandro Camon, crafts an excellent debut feature with The Messenger, the riveting dramatic story of a 'war hero' returning to his homeland after finishing his tour of duty in Iraq. When we first meet Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) he's happy to be home. He even reunites with his ex-girlfriend, Kelly (Jena Malone) for a welcome back trip to the bedroom for old times' sake. Will soon finds himself with a rather unusual assignment, however - he's asked to work as part of the U.S. Army's Casualty Notification department. Will's a little put off by his new duties, as telling someone that the family member they love has been killed in duty can't be an easy task, but he accepts it and is introduced to Sergeant Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a soldier a bit older than himself who has some experience in this department under his belt.
Will is given a pager and a script that he's told to memorize and soon enough, he's accompanying Stone as they drive to different locations to act, as the title implies, as messengers. He's taught the basics of the job - to always stick to the script, to never touch the person you're telling the news to or offer a hug, and to always make sure that the only person you talk to is the next of kin. While he acclimates to his new duties, he finds himself searching for meaning in his new life, dealing with some of the guilt that he's carried home from his tour of duty, and just generally trying to readjust. At the same time, he and Stone develop an unlikely friendship, but not as unlikely as the relationship that sprouts between Will and the widow of one of the recently deceased soldiers he was sent to announce, Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton).
Foster, cast here as a leading man for the first time in his career, excels here. You can completely understand his frustration and his rage and when it finally does unload in a few interesting scenes, you're not so much shocked or surprised as you are relieved. His on screen chemistry with Harrelson, who rightfully got an Oscar nomination for his work here, is never less then completely believable and the pair play off of one another's strengths incredibly well. Equally impressive is Samantha Morton, and while she doesn't get as much screen time as her two male counterparts, she's an understandably sympathetic character and her presence throws an interesting dynamic into the mix. Memorable supporting performances from Jena Malone and Steve Buscemi round out the cast nicely and The Messenger turns out to be one of the best acted films of 2009.
Moverman presents the film without the need for flashy editing or effects. The visuals are always rather simple, but at the same time, wholly effective. The film rests on the strength of its script and its cast and detracting from those two qualities would have done the finished project a disservice. The picture manages to move gracefully from hard hitting drama to black comedy quite easily without disrupting its flow - a perfect example is a scene in a bar where Will hears a soldier, freshly returned from a tour of duty, tell a story about an Iraqi man he knew there. It starts out as crass, funny, even racist, but soon turns into something of genuine sadness and quite literally shatters the previously jovial mood. This is a theme that Moverman uses throughout the film as we periodically shift between amusing scenes between Foster and Harrelson into segments that realistically show the effects of their duties. The sense of sorrow, grief and loss displayed in the film can be enveloping, but thankfully it isn't overwhelming.
Visually there isn't much to write home about here - the film is shot around an army base so there's a lot of cookie cutter housing and grim colors and much of the film takes place inside these houses - but the film is a stand out piece of filmmaking that manages to offer up a compelling look at life and death without harboring on political issues or cramming an agenda down the audience's throat. It's emotionally trying at times but more importantly it's intelligent and treats its audience equally. If nothing else, it'll make you feel and it'll make you think.
The Messenger debuts on Blu-ray in a 1080p 2.35.1 high definition AVC encoded anamorphic widescreen transfer that is consistently film like. This isn't a movie that makes use of eye popping colors, in fact much of it has been rendered in earth tones and drab hues, but that doesn't come at the cost of detail. Facial close ups fare the best, showing every crevice, line, pore and wrinkle while texture is very finely detailed which you'll notice in the various uniforms on display and in less obvious spots like the curtains in the background during the scene that plays out in Olivia's humble kitchen. The film looks intentionally soft sometimes and the filmmaker's have definitely taken a minimalist approach to creating the look used in the picture, but in the context of the story and the tone that they're going for, it works really well and this Blu-ray release renders it all extremely well.
Oscilloscope's package also includes a standard definition DVD release of the film which presents the picture in 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen in a nice progressive scan transfer that looks just fine but which obviously doesn't offer the depth, detail and range that the Blu-ray disc provides.
While this isn't the type of film that will rock your home theater system, the English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track definitely gets the job done. This is a very front heavy mix with surrounds used primarily for the score and for background and ambient noise - you'll notice it during the engagement party and during the scenes that take place in the bar - but it all sounds clean, clear and well balanced. There are no problems with hiss or distortion at all and dialogue is always easy to follow and understand. There aren't a lot of sound effects here but those that are worked into the film have a nice punch to them, and you'll pick up on that during the twenty-one gun salute that takes place during the funeral scene. An English language PCM 2.0 Stereo track is also offered and it too sounds quite good, if not as full as the 5.1 track does. Subtitles are provided in English only.
The extras start off with a commentary track that includes Director/Co-writer Oren Moverman, Producer Lawrence Inglee and lead actors Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson. There's a bit of dead air here and there that kind of slows things down but overall this is an interesting look into how the actors in particular approached their performances for this film. A fair bit of the film was actually improvised but you'd never know it from watching the film. Moverman talks about where his inspiration came and why he wanted to make this picture and also talks about the look and atmosphere he was going for, while Harrelson and Foster talk about their working relationships with the rest of the team and what it was like preparing for their work on this project.
There are also two featurettes included on the disc, the first of which is Going Home: Reflections From The Set. At roughly twelve minutes this could have been longer and still remained interesting as it features interviews with all of the key cast members as well as the director and a few of the crew members alongside some interesting footage shot on set while the feature was still being made. Lengthier is the twenty-seven minutes Variety Q&A session in which Moverman is joined on stage by Harrelson and Foster to field questions from the audience. The touch on the film's themes and politics and discuss the making of the movie in quite a bit of detail. The second featurette is in HD, the first in standard definition.
Rounding out the extras is a trailer for the feature, trailers for a few other Oscilloscope releases, animated menus and chapter stops. The DVD version of the movie contains the same extras as the Blu-ray version, albeit with the inclusion of a twenty-five minute short film called Notification, which was co-directed by the late Joe Kelly who sadly passed away in January of 2010. This telling documentary is made up of interviews with the U.S. Army's Casualty Notification Officers and members of the Casualty Assistance department who explain what it is they do, and their approach to dealing with the difficulties that their job entails. Also included in the documentary are interviews with family members of soldiers who were lost in the war, who detail their experiences and give their thoughts on how the Army handles these situations. It's emotionally stirring at times and interesting in that it sheds some light on an aspect of military life that many of us don't really know very much about. The DVD version also includes a PDF version of the film's shooting script accessible by way of a DVD-Rom drive.
As seems to be the norm with Oscilloscope releases, the release is nicely packaged using recycled materials. The two discs fit inside a foldable booklet containing a brief essay on the film which in turns fits inside a slipcase that ultimately fits nicely inside an O-ring. It's maybe not a big deal to some, but it's a nice touch.
The Messenger is a powerful and thought provoking film that is both expertly directed and incredibly well acted. It doesn't beat you over the head with politics or with an agenda, instead it tells a simple story and explores some interesting relationships through clever writing and effectively minimalist filmmaking. Oscilloscope's Blu-ray/DVD combo package is a good one, sporting a strong transfer, an effective sound mix, nice packaging and a welcome array of interesting and informative supplements. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.