If Up In the Air (2009) introduced us to the idea of a bad-news-messenger as the new hero of our time, Oren Moverman’s The Messenger (2009) takes things up a notch. In fact, the movie gets brazenly close to launching a new genre. And even though I doubt that grief-porn will prove as successful as torture-porn once did, both are equally despicable – for different reasons. The way The Messenger repeatedly puts the viewers through the wringer by making them witness violent outbursts of pain and loss, it achieves a weird, disquieting slickness. Each next mourner is carefully designed to differ from the previous one – and everything is taken into account: gender, race, temperament, economic status (and even star-status: look for Steve Buscemi’s double appearance). This PC-greased carousel is set in motion once the main character, Will (Ben Foster), leaves army hospital and gets a new assignment as a member of a two men strong Casualty Notification Team. As he learns to handle (and sometimes match) the grief caused in people he and his partner notify, Will also comes to terms with his own battlefield guilt.
The dialogue moves between the opposing poles of ridiculous, brash, liberal-conscience-soothing statements and some genuinely smart critique of institutional newspeak designed to neutralize death (“NoK”, or “next of kin” are being divided into two neat groups: “primary” and “secondary”; the “local notification teams” are in operation, etc.).
But the problem of the film is best defined by Will himself, when he shouts to his partner: “We’re walking into those people’s lives, [and] we don’t know shit!”. If the main theme here is how the state objectifies its subjects, than there’s no going around the fact that the film itself is doing precisely that: it confronts us with specimens, designed to prove points and raise issues. In its overt dissent towards structures of power, The Messenger doesn’t wince from the most worn-down clichés, such as crashing a fancy party and flaunting lines like: “Fuck the procedure (…)! They’re human beings!”.
Excellent acting notwithstanding, and even though I admired the two extremely long shots used in the emotional-peak scenes, I found the film pretty exploitative and confined by its own (predetermined) political immediacy.