Images of war are all too common – portrayed endlessly through film and television – and often seek to enforce a clear ideology and propaganda message of good versus evil, and right versus wrong.
We very rarely see the other side: the soldiers who have survived injury and struggle to come to terms with their survival; or the families who are left to cope with the deaths of those who have died in action.
The Messenger seeks to tackle both of these issues. It follows the stories of two military officers, tasked with notifying the families of soldiers who have been killed in action. Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) has recently returned from Iraq, and has been assigned the position while recovering from injuries.
He joins Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a veteran of the first Gulf War, and someone who has numbed himself to the task at hand through military regulations and an ongoing battle with alcoholism.
Neither is there to provide counselling. They are not even permitted to make physical contact or offer comfort. They are just there to provide notification of death.
The encounters with families offer a bleak insight into the lives of these officers. Whether it is the screaming mother in clear denial, or the angry father who spits in the face of those delivering unimaginable news, the families’ pain is clear and unflinching.
In one scene, the wife of a soldier thanks the two men, shakes their hands and apologises that it must have been hard for them to deliver such news before retreating into her house.
One of the strongest anti-war moments in the film comes when Olivia (Samantha Morton), whose enlisted son has been killed, intervenes as military recruitment officers are talking to a group of teenagers at the mall.
At another point in the film Montgomery looks over at a party in a bar where young people are celebrating the return of their friend. The laughter is replaced with an uncomfortable silence as the soldier recounts the gruesome death of a local man he knew in Iraq. The young man leaves the bar to smoke outside, and he and Montgomery share a brief conversation over a cigarette. “It’s like coming back from another planet,” comments Montgomery.
The Messenger is superbly acted. The moments of grief and despair it portrays are at times genuinely moving. The film never glamourises war, and an anti-war current runs throughout. Instead it begins to explore the pain and anguish of those who’ve lost children and partners in the middle of war.
A quietly evocative film
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