Woody Harrelson in The Messenger (directed by Oren Moverman): production stills via Osclloscope Laboratories, 2009
I wanted to tell you about a film called The Messenger. You've probably missed it; almost everybody has. A couple of soldiers, veterans of the two Iraq wars, drive around unappealing residential communities in New Jersey delivering notifications of combat deaths to next of kin. They're not tasked with delivering compassion; they are not angels bearing consolation to the aggrieved; they wear crisply starched uniforms but display no flags; all they bring the desolated loved ones is the bitter scraps. It's a very, very bad job, consisting mostly of long periods of anxious dead time, pure terrible duration, waiting for the signal to gear up and head out to knock at that next unwelcoming door.
And it's a bleak, yet curiously believable film, picturing quite credibly an America that is pretty much all downside; that is, the depressed America of long meaningless losses in long meaningless wars; the America of this millennium. It contains few lies and a great deal of slow, stretched out time. What "happens" is the realistic representation of the experience of temporality under great stress, and not much else; moments of friendship, love, grief, anger, despair, loyalty, rage, sorrow, loss, guilt, confusion are among the scraps of feeling snatched from this pure experience of duration; the mix feels real, like a sample from life itself. The takes are long and tense with contained emotion which remains finally unexpressed, a genie of wish fulfillment that remains corked in a dark, dark bottle. The violence that we feel might explode at any time never arrives. The restraint of the acting performances, the austerity and minimalism of the camera style and sound track, the understated and careful writing, the subdued humor that punctuates the painful exploration of difficult subject matter with moments of grim comedy, all add up to a movie that has virtually no holiday box office potential whatsoever. Reviewers have been made uncomfortable, some have even claimed to be bored. To each her/his own. I thought it was terrific, maybe the best American movie I've seen since There Will Be Blood. Both these movies are about that miserable thing, the ultimate meagreness of the tragedy of the American dream. Oren Moverman and Paul Thomas Anderson have one thing in common. They are both brave enough (or audacious enough) to keep looking at a scene until it begins to hurt.