‘We walk into these peoples lives – we don’t know shit’.
War films generally do exactly what they say on the tin, concentrating on the conflict or the personalities of those engaged in the violence and as such they often don’t take into account the wider picture. The Messenger tries to address this by exploring the least filmic aspect of war – informing the relatives who didn’t go out to fight that their loved ones have been lost in action.
Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery has a new job, and one that, despite its apparent lack of action that the front line offered, has its own conflicts of a more emotionally upsetting nature: it is his task to reveal the death of a soldier to that serviceman’s next of kin. To help him with his new duties is real man’s man Captain Tony Stone who has been part of this operation for many years and can teach him to disclose the sad news to civilians who do not understand the practicalities of life in the army and its often fatal outcomes. There are strict rules which must be complied with when informing relatives of their loss. What cannot be predicted, of course, is their response to his revelations or indeed his reactions to their responses which can range from anger, hysterics to violent aggression. It is his job to remain impassive and professional. But when he meets young mother Olivia (Samantha Morton), who takes the news calmly and with measured stoicism, can he remain detached?
The Messenger is primarily a character piece which explores both the perspectives of the relatives who have to hear the news of their loved one’s death (reactions we are likely to understand) as well as the bearers of the bad news (a role that many people would find very difficult to undertake). Will Montgomery is not an easy character to identify with, much less sympathise with. We are shown that he has relationship issues and appears to have emotional difficulties. The most demanding element of his job to deal with is that he is not allowed to show compassion – he has simply to state the facts, offer practical assistance and that’s it – so perhaps his detached attitude is ideal for this role. Stone declares their job is ‘not simply important, it’s sacred’ and is viewed as an integral part of the US army’s relationship with the public. It is only when Will meets Olivia that the film allows his character to show concern and even kindness.
The filmmaking is understated and the whole comes across as an independent drama with little use of CG or elaborate editing, preferring to maintain its position as an actors’ piece. As such it will offer little to those expecting action or violence because this is not its remit. An alternative perspective on war, The Messenger is quietly underplayed but engaging and interesting.