STUDIO: Oscilloscope Laboratories
MSRP: $29.99
RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes
•    “Notification” documentary
•    Audio Commentary  with Oren Moverman, Lawrence Inglee, Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson
•    Going Home: Reflections from the set
•    Variety Screening Series Q&A
•    Shooting script
    Essay by Anthony Swofford

The Pitch

The Messenger is a powerful tale of love, loss and friendship that shows how war brings pain, even when it is thousands of miles away.

Foster made up a game that combined golf and football, using a parking lot. His handicap was a space.

The Humans

Written by Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman
Directed by Oren Moverman
Starring: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, Steve Buscemi, Eamonn Walker

The Nutshell

Nominated for two Academy Awards, the real great war drama of 2009 comes to DVD in a great package that enhances the film. At times heartbreaking, suspenseful, funny and romantic, it is a reflection of real life and the many ups and downs it takes.

Avatar had to be delayed another year after all of Stephen Lang’s scenes had to be reshot without “blackface”.

The Lowdown

The opening shot of The Messenger isn’t that important. In fact, there is hardly a solitary image that may sit in your mind when looking back at the film. But man, there will be a feeling. And it will stay with you for a long time. Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is recovering from injuries he sustained in Iraq including a scarred eye and a slightly gimpy leg. For the last three months before he is released from the Army, he has been assigned casualty notification duty, to inform next of kin that their family member has died in service. His new partner, Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) is a tough man assigned to how him the ropes in what is often a terribly stressful job. They must stick to the script, be clear and precise about the death of the individual, and get the news to the family before they could find out from some news outlet or alternative source.

Part of the trauma of the position is that they are representing the U.S. Armed Forces, and as such must follow a protocol to not touch or get emotionally involved with the next of kin. They cannot inform anyone but the listed next of kin. They never know how someone will react to the news, and the film shows a variety of the kinds of things people go through when being informed of such disheartening information. Sometimes it is a slap to the face of the officer, sometimes it is being spat at. Sometimes a person will become sick to their stomach. All of these possibilities must be accounted for and expected, and that’s why it is so odd when Stone and Montgomery inform a woman named Olivia (Samantha Morton) of her husband’s death and she reacts with certain nonchalance.

On the way home from seeing Antichrist at the drive-in.

Olivia and her son become a sort of obsession for Montgomery. But despite the synopsis or the advertising, the film is hardly about his relationship with her or the fact that his trying to start a forbidden relationship with a widow he recently informed. Above all else, this is an excellent account of how war is still very much a battle even when you are “home”. Stone and Montgomery reflect this throughout, and the ways they handle the stresses therein are the real lynchpin of it all.

Foster plays Montgomery as a sort of everyman. This could be any soldier’s story, and the location that the film takes place in is never defined – a sort of general America. This is a key component of the film, because although we are drawn to the extremely dynamic performances on the screen by Foster and Harrelson, we are so enamored because they present themselves not as actors but as people. Foster is sort of quiet through the opening scenes of the film (for good reason) but I hung on his every word because I was curious whether Montgomery was being portrayed as a stereotypical movie soldier farm boy or with some sort of southern accent. In not going this route and giving him a flat Middle American voice, the fact that this could be any soldier’s story is furthered in a subtle but relevant way. Montgomery has anger issues, problems with abandonment, probably drinks too much, and general frustrations that plague a man who has seen the worst the world has to offer in war. Yet he is intelligent, does his job, and sometimes needs to just blow off some steam. The same can be said of Harrelson’s Stone, who is similarly great in his essential role (though he does have a native southern accent).

One scene portrays a soldier who is having a welcome home party in a bar, and we see it all through Montgomery’s eyes. Similarly, the first time that he and Stone go to report a death in the family, it would have been just as easy to focus the camera on the tragedy- the wild outburst of tears and crippling pain on the faces of the next of kin. But instead the camera stays steadily on the stern and unchanging face of Montgomery who is clearly going through a baptism of sorts. It is only once he has become comfortable in the mission that the camera loosens up a bit and focuses on the mourners more. This was possibly the wisest camera choice in the whole film, next to a scene of Montgomery and Olivia in her kitchen that plays out in one long take.

A scene from Michael Bay’s The Godfather Part II.

Sound also has a large presence in the film, arguably more than the visuals. The music that Montgomery (or Stone) listens to is never mentioned, save a neighbor yelling to turn it down. But it is a great decision to have it be a constant stream of hard-rock, all of which seems slightly behind the times. The general sound design in the film often accentuates the mood, sometimes to add a small moment of anticipation or suspense as we wait for the visuals to catch up to what we are hearing. A voice, an approaching person, something unexpected, we often hear these things before it steps on screen. Perhaps this is a subtle allusion to Montgomery’s own eye trauma. If so, it is brilliantly conceived and executed, as it never grabs your attention unless you pick up on it.

Director Owen Moverman and his co-writer Alessandro Camos have brought an intellect to the post-war experience. Being Israeli, Moverman’s own experiences as a paratrooper must have contributed to this understanding. Living in a country where everyone you know has served in the military, you see all the forms people can take after the fact. Yet, this film has very distinctly American details- a scene where Stone and Montgomery sing “Home on the Range”, for instance (which subsequently Willie Nelson plays over the end credits). The fact that neither Moverman nor Camos, who is Italian, are American-born matters as they are evidently wise observers of American life. Just as the Montgomery is the everyman and the setting is anywhere, the experiences of loss and finding a balance are universal.

This film is dedicated to Stan Lee and Tom Petty?!

The Package

The Messenger is presented in its original 2:35:1 Widescreen aspect ratio with a 5.1 surround audio mix. The Packaging is curious, because it is advertised as 30% post-consumer cardboard, and asks you to recycle. However, there is a flagrantly unnecessary amount of this packaging. There is a vertical slipcover, which houses a side-opening slipcover with the same information on the back and different art on the cover. Beneath that is a four-panel gatefold, which has a short essay written by Anthony Swofford, best known for penning Jarhead and being played by Jake Gyllenhaal in the film of the same name, and one panel houses the disc in a cardboard sleeve built into the packaging. All in all it’s a curious choice.

The Special Features begin with “Notification”, a 25 minute documentary that explores the real life side of notification officers, and is a welcome addition to round out the reality of the film. “Going Home” is a featurette on the making of the film, and includes many interviews with key cast and crewmembers during the film’s production. A Variety Screening Series Q&A featuring the main cast and crew (excepting Samantha Morton) fills in additional information about making the film and amazingly only one truly idiotic question is asked by the audience. Ben Foster has an amazing story here about visiting a veteran’s hospital that packs as much punch as the film itself and inspired the “dedication” end credits sequence. The audio commentary from director Moverman, producer Lawrence Inglee as well as stars Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson adds additional information without being too repetitious. Also included is access to the shooting script for the film when the DVD is watched from a PC and trailers for other Oscilloscope films. All in all it is a great set of features that all enhance the experience of The Messenger.

9.5 out of 10