“The Messenger” Sends Message to Oscars
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
When I spoke with Oren Moverman a few weeks ago, he hadn’t yet been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay for “The Messenger.” Nor had Woody Harrelson been tapped as a Best Supporting Actor candidate for that same film.
Oren was telling me how amazed he was that he’d got to direct his own screenplay. “Yeah, I’d like to do that again,” he admitted shyly. “But I don’t have anything definite.”
That’s changed by now. An Oscar nod is a door opener. Hollywood scuttlebutt says he’s just been tapped to do a long-awaited film about legendary rocker Kurt Cobain.
Oren’s a friendly self-deprecating guy who lives in the Flatiron neighborhood of New York City. He describes his main interest as being a family guy, looking after his kids. His main claim to fame was co-writing the screenplay for “I’m Not There,” that cinematic paean to Bob Dylan.
We were kibitzing over the irony that two “immigrants” had penned what might be the best screenplay written so far about the Middle East conflicts, offering a very American viewpoint on lives lost to war. You see, Oren was raised in Israel, served in the Israeli army, migrated to the US in his early 20s. And his writing partner Alessandro Camon was born in Italy.
“Losing loved ones to war is a universal theme,” Oren opines. “People deal with grief in different ways … the movie itself has simple suggestions about how you get back to life after the experience of pain, loss and grief.”
“The Messenger” offers a snapshot of an odd coupling of two U.S. soldiers assigned the task of notifying Next of Kin that someone has died while in military service.
Unlike with many movies about the current wars, the U.S. Army fully cooperated with Oren in making “The Messenger.” Actual soldiers whose job it is to deliver bad news to NOK assisted him in making sure the film reflected the way it really works. “To a man, every one of them said they’d rather be facing battle than delivering these messages,” Oren says. “Casualty notification, it’s the hardest job in the army.”
Ben Foster is cast as a decorated soldier with three months to go on his hitch, temporarily assigned to notify NOK. Woody Harrelson plays his by-the-book supervisor, a hardcase who leans on the new messenger to get it right. You only deliver the news to the Next of Kin. You never touch them. You stick to the script.
However, Foster’s character has a more compassionate bent, particularly when he encounters a sad widow portrayed by Samantha Morton.
“It is really if anything a love story,” observes Woody Harrelson. “A love story of Ben’s character falling in love with a widow and it’s also Ben and my character loving each other. It’s a testament to how Oren captured all these different relationships and deep emotions.”
Capturing these emotions has an authenticity rarely seen in films. Oren revealed to me that the actors didn’t know who would be opening the door when they played each scene. Each character was coached as to their backstory, how to play it. But Foster and Harrelson were left on their own, sticking to the Army’s rules as they encountered angry relatives, grieving wives, collapsing fathers, and shattered mothers.
“It was fairly chaotic in the sense it was really unpredictable,” admits Harrelson. “We really didn’t know who would open the door, will they’d let us in, where we stand. I thought it was a smart way to shoot it on Oren’s part in that it gave us believability and there was real spontaneity.”
Woody Harrelson has come a long way from that doofus on TV’s “Cheers.” He’s terrified us as a “Natural Born Killer.” Amused us as a “Kingpin.” Impressed us as a bounty hunter in “No Country for Old Men.” Stretched his acting muscles as “The Walker.” Heralded the End of the World as a prophet in “2012.” But his role as “The Messenger” has brought him a deserved Oscar nomination.
Tonight, as we all watch the Academy Awards, you might well see him receive a golden statuette. And Oren too.
“We tried to be respectful of characters and audiences,” Oren told me. “This is not a movie that hits you over the head … but it doesn’t shy away from feelings.”
Harrelson agrees. “As my character, I have to be stoic, but in reality, as soon as they say, ‘Cut,” I’d start bawling.”
“People reacted strongly to the screenplay because its about grief and life, about needing to move on back into the realm of the living once faced with death,” nods Oren. “And so it’s a much more universal theme than just a particular war.”
Yes, it’s an unusual war movie, one that doesn’t show a single battle scene. But it delivers a powerful message, one that leaves you thinking about the tragic toll of war as you walk out of the theater into the bleak night.
[from Solares Hill]