by Hugo Gordon
Living in Britain, we get most of the big blockbusters shortly after or at the same time as our American cousins. But independent films often slip through the cracks, showing up on the shores of Blighty rather late. So it is with The Messenger, which is finally getting a UK release a full two years after it was first released in the US to massive critical acclaim and frankly criminally low box office numbers. Luckily, it was worth the wait.
Moverman’s first film sees Ben Foster playing a soldier who returns to the States after being injured in Iraq. Dumped by his girlfriend and assigned to be a Casualty Notification Officer, (a US army specialist whose grim task is to inform people their loved ones have been killed in action), he quickly falls for a woman (Samantha Morton) to whom he has delivered news of her husband’s death.
The Messenger provides a fascinating portrayal of grief, especially when showing how the various notified next of kin react to the sad news – some break down in tears, others react with anger, or lapse into denial. One even calmly shakes Foster’s hand and thanks him for doing a job that ‘must be very difficult for you.’
It helps that this may be the best acted film of the last few years. Foster is one of the best young actors in America at the moment, yet up until now he has largely been typecast in ‘madman’ roles, and this finally gives him the chance to reign himself hin and show just how good he really is. Also pulling out the acting stops are Woody Harrelson (who received an Oscar nomination for his performance as another CNO fighting his own inner demons), Morton and Steve Buscemi, who makes a big impact with a brief appearance.
The Messenger isn’t perfect. Some of the notification scenes are better than others, and the early phase of Foster’s relationship with Morton don’t quite convince. The overall result however is deeply affecting. Moverman is careful not to overdo the tragedy and turn his film into a tear-jerker. Instead he allows The Messenger to speak for itself.