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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for a limited audience.

Michael Jackson:
The Interviews
Vol. 2 (2009)
. "The Messenger"

This film takes a look at a little thought about detail of wartime death -- the face-to-face meeting between a representative of the military and the NOK (Next Of Kin) in which they are told of their loved one's passing, the circumstances, and the sympathy and support of the U.S. Government.

The way this works and the rules and discipline of those commissioned to perform this service are outlined nicely by having a veteran of this dour responsibility, Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) train the new man, Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) for what is, traditionally, a two-man team. "One thing you never do," he advises his junior man, "is touch the NOK.

All men touched by war are likely to be carrying personal demons, and these two haven't escaped that load. The Captain is a failed teetotaler and lonely despite his conquests with women; the sergeant is tortured by a decision he made under fire that cost a comrade's life but for which he was medaled and called a hero. Sometimes, being assigned that tag is the worst thing you can do for a guy.

As the team does its work, they take us through a variety of responses from their poor NOKs, and the empathy they display is fully evident. We see people deny the terrible information; slap the messenger for want of a better venting of their grief and anger; accuse the messenger of being a coward for just being alive; break down and then thank the messenger for a task with such morbidly emotionally difficulty.

Montgomery isn't the greatest student and doesn't have the same level of control that his superior does. When he does touch the parents of one dead soldier, there's hell to pay from the Captain. But things go from there to worse by Montgomery's response to Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton) a now-widowed wife. This he does in a really forbidden way.

Attracted by the peculiarity of her responses, he basically stalks her, out of which action a relationship is formulated. Which is all the more peculiar for the feelings he still has for his ex-lover Kelly (Jena Malone), with whom he had sex at the beginning of the story and now is driven to despair by the announcement that she's going to marry someone else, rather on the rebound from him and his inability to consider marriage.

And so, the study of an esoteric military service takes us into a dark and ambiguous romance drama (including male interdependencies) as a means to convey the messy complexity of human strengths and weaknesses. The episodic choices made have the texture of actual experience, imparting a level of real-life veracity to the piece. But, that's a mixed blessing. The closer you come to a real life re-creation, the more wandering the dramatic focus becomes. That's one of the problems I had with this piece.

The other is subjective: the absence of chemistry between Foster and Morton, which becomes the forced nature of a good part of the screenplay. As a consequence, this character piece may work better for the romantics who are more likely to accept what good actors put before them. For the critical, the effect is a gaping wound in the emotional context, large enough to allow credulity to seep out.

For her part, Morton is more than a little interesting as a hard-to-figure out griever whose response to terrible news doesn't fit the norm and isn't easily comprehended by an outsider.

There's been considerable buzz about Harrelson's performance as a likely contender for Best Actor of 2009 honors. This ex-"Cheers" habitue is a solid thespian with a style that sets him apart -- something I've come to appreciate in a number of singular roles for which he's been cast. Carson Wells in "No Country for Old Men" and Ernie Luckman in "A Scanner Darkly" come to mind. With this role it's clear he's tuned in to being a more serious actor than his dudely roles would type him as, and he earns some cred with his military commission here.

But one has to wonder why he's getting all the buzz and comparativley little is being said about Foster. The parts, and the emotional performance skills are close to equal. But, of course, this kind of mystery is common in Hollywood promotion and media circles. We've seen it before. And, the mystery is likely to remain as obscure as the reason the title is singular instead of plural.

Foster will have his chance, and I'm glad to see him taking on a role that doesn't inspire such excess as what he went for in "Alpha Dog" as the completely crazed Jake Mazursky and, again, as the evil sidewinder Charlie Prince in "3:10 to Yuma." I've come to think of him as prone to playing an immoral clown on the edge of sanity and happy for this chance to recalibrate and enlarge my respect for the range of his work.

Co-writer Oren Moverman debuts as director, from a screenplay co-written with Alessandro Camon, who produced "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans."

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
Poorly written, off base
I've seen the movie and disagree with the review
Site rating: 3

Foster and Morton had sensational chemistry. What few scenes they had together were obviously drenched in sexual desire and longing, despite the fact that they did not even kiss once throughout the entire film.

                                                           ~~ esther 
[Ed. note: Esther caught me in an error, which has been fixed. I'm always grateful when a reader explains the reason for downgrading my review.]



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Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson are the Next of Kin informant squad.
Taking the mission as seriously as it calls for.

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