This week I’ll be attending the Savannah Film Festival here in GA, and bringing you a few impressions of the films I see. The fest runs through November 7th and will be screening some great films including The White Ribbon, Youth In Revolt, Precious, and The Messenger. Cool folks tend to show up and this year Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster, Jeremy Renner, Patricia Clarkson, Hugh Dancy, Alan Cumming and more are slated- but with a movie like The Conspirator filming in town, who knows who will pop up.
The fest also features great workshops and premiers of some smaller films, and I’ll try and bring you bits and pieces of the best stuff the festival has to offer.
If you’re interested, I’ll be tweeting frequently about the event (you can find my feed easily- @rennbrown), as will the wonderful @jenyamato- a guest of the festival.
The Messenger is a film thats strength lies in its courage to never look away from a difficult situation, and in a piece about US Army Casualty Notification Officers, there are nothing but difficult situations.
Ben Foster plays Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery who is paired with experienced CNO Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) for the three month remainder of his enlistment. Montgomery is a decorated hero that is still suffering from wounds received during his last mission, and we learn quickly that it is not only physical shrapnel that Montgomery excels at handling. Captain Stone takes Montgomery through the ropes and it is immediately obvious that rules are difficult to apply to such tragic, human situations. Montgomery catches Stone breaking his own small subtle rules right away (One is supposed to leave a notification immediately if the Next Of Kin is unavailable, for example), as each situations brings its own set of awkward circumstances.
This is not a film about men setting up professional distance and growing cold in the face of emotion, rather it is about a man who is very nearly an emotional sponge. Right away Montgomery demonstrates the kind of quiet compassion, mixed with disciplined professionalism that makes him an excellent Notifier, but we know that he doesn’t leave these notifications behind once they are through- they stick with him. One notification in particular strikes him, and he ends up extending out a hand and his heart to a widow (played by an absolutely incredible Samantha Morton) with a young son. It is through this woman, and another that he loves but is getting married to another man, that we learn about the real Montgomery and see him at his most irrationally emotional.
The Messenger is powerful film, and seemed to touch most everyone in the audience, but this is not to say it is without problems. The film is extremely character driven, and you often wonder where the film is really going- or at least how long it’s going to take to get there. You could say the film is moving towards Montgomery’s decision whether or not to stick with notification, but that isn’t a very dramatized decision. The film moves along, and deftly shifts gears between notifications and the background lives of the soldiers, but a lack of clear direction makes the film feel meandering at times. Interestingly enough, it is one of the film’s strengths that accentuate this weakness.
The film was shot in such a way that most of the dramatic moments are made up of extremely long handheld shots. Notification scenes were not rehearsed, and the actors never knew what to expect- this gives the film an incredibly raw and realistic (relative to conventional cinema anyway) feel. A film made up of extremely long shots, paired with such an intensely emotional subject matter though, is quite wearying. It is difficult to criticize a piece dealing with casualty notification for being wearying (should this film not be a trial to watch?), but it is a problem that reveals itself more in the thematic satisfaction one feels, rather than the experience of watching it. This seemed to be a deal-breaker for a few people I spoke with, but didn’t degrade the film that significantly in my eyes.
The film is certainly strongest when dealing with the actual notification process, and each notification battles another for being the most powerful scene of the year. One in particular, that involves an unexpected appearance of a beloved character actor, was gut-wrenching enough that I almost averted my eyes. Do yourself a favor and try and steer clear of any cast lists. The main group is characteristically wonderful. Foster and Harrelson feel like real soldiers- guys who are perfectly capable of getting drunk and being stupid, but always have that sense of discipline and world-awareness behind everything they do. I myself have family in Afghanistan, and it always touches me to see soldiers portrayed honestly- there is a very specific and difficult tone that must be struck. I can’t speak enough accolades for Foster who is carrying his first sizable lead role, and takes the emotional load as effectively as his character.
I find it interesting that we’re finally getting some decent films from our modern wartime environment, and that the two best (this and The Hurt Locker*) deal with smaller jobs in the military, that are structured into a more episodic routine. That says something about the slow city-by-city slog of modern desert warfare that the cinematic reactions to it are so repetitive mission-by-mission, day-to-day affairs. It isn’t the chaos of World War II, or the paranoid, constantly confusing madness of Vietnam, but a different kind of soul-trying battle- a routine dice roll. There were a number of military personnel present (a few who got quite rowdy at the after-party!) who seemed genuinely touched by how they were portrayed. Foster and Harrelson (who had recently visited Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah) were obviously dedicated to these men and women and had developed an extremely strong connection. It shows in the film. See it when it hits DC and NY on Nov. 12th, and goes wider Nov. 20th. (Keep an eye on these dates, as I must confirm them)
If you care to take a look at some scenes from the festival last night, have a look at this quick video (you can catch a glimpse of my goofy-looking ass at around the 0:50 mark) to get an idea of the excited and energized atmosphere of the Savannah Film Festival. Look for more soon.