BOOKS AND ARTS DECEMBER 19, 2009
An extraordinary Iraq war film takes place at home-at homes--and moves through wartime experience known generally yet generally disregarded. The Messenger is about the Army’s Casualty Notification office. When a soldier is killed, two uniformed soldiers, usually decorated veterans, are sent to the soldier’s home to notify the next of kin personally. (A letter from the secretary of the Army soon follows.) Notification personnel are bound by strict rules of behavior--“Do Not Touch the N.O.K.” is one of them--but no rules can protect the messengers from deep effect on themselves.
Good films, we all know by now, begin with good screenplays. Even if that adage is not invariably true, it is certainly the case here. The Messenger was written by Oren Moverman and Alessandro Camon, and it vibrates throughout with dialogue so taut and incisive that it not only fits what is happening, it is itself gratifying. The writers have, among other glints, utilized what are apparently clichés of army talk in such a way that they affirm army life as a universe. “Bullets fly, and soldiers die.” The captain who says this has presumably heard it many times, and his very familiarity with it makes it fitting rather than stale.
The precise dialogue is all the more remarkable because Moverman, who also directed, was born in Israel, where he served four years as an infantryman in the Israel Defense Forces. His ear is now tuned to America: he has written previous scripts in this country. But out of experience, he seems here to be relying on a freemasonry among soldiers of most countries that, friendly with one another or not, enables them to understand spoken and unspoken things about one another.
Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, recently wounded in Iraq and decorated, is relieved from active duty and assigned to work with Captain Tony Stone on a notification team. Stone, a veteran long past disillusion, is friendly-stiff with Montgomery, and the sergeant, expecting nothing in particular, obeys orders, period. Together they make six visits of notification during the film. The first N.O.K., a father, becomes furious at them, almost violent. Another father simply becomes ill on the spot.
But The Messenger could not merely be a chronicle of those visits, and not just because they are terrible. Those visits are part--huge but only a part--of the team’s lives. Between times we learn more about Stone and Montgomery, in the past and the present. Stone, a former drunk, says that he has been married three times, twice to the same woman. We have seen at the very start something of Montgomery’s private life, a visit to his apartment by an ex-girlfriend who is now affianced elsewhere. We see him moving, at first a bit awkwardly, into his new duty. The two men drink and eat and get to know each other. We see their professional experience knitting them. At one point, they more or less provoke a fistfight with three men just because, we sense, they want to vent their own stopped-up feelings. Later on, when the two men have been seasoned together by their notification visits as if they had been in battle together, they turn up slightly soused, and very out of dress, at the engagement party of Montgomery’s earlier girl. By this time, we can believe that their disarray represents inner disorder.
The script makes few concessions to movieness. One element might be the result of a story conference call for a non-grim element, but the writing and the performances of this material are so touching that it does not intrude. Montgomery becomes fond of a young woman who is now, as he and Stone have told her, a widow. She, reticent and a touch embarrassed, subsequently responds to the sergeant as a man. The attraction between them takes us because she suggests subtly that, in an intricate sense, he has been to her an emissary for her husband, a vicar. And he, aware of both the inappropriateness and the truth of his feeling, is ready for her.
Thus scenes that might have seemed sheer audience compensation in other hands are germane with Moverman. He has taste and invention and discretion. The blunt moments of death notification are done with variety but no sense of straining for variety. The scenes between the two soldiers off-duty never mention the notification job--except for one blunder that Montgomery makes--yet they are steeped in the experience. The scenes between the woman and the sergeant have almost no physical contact yet are full of feeling. The very last scene, which is between these two, is capped with a graceful elision.
Ben Foster, who plays Montgomery, is not an immediately compelling actor, but Moverman has mined all that Foster has to give, which is plenty. With Woody Harrelson, who is Stone, Moverman may have had the opposite job--keeping him down. Harrelson is one of the unappreciated film forces of our time. (His performance in Natural Born Killers still sears in memory.) Actors of his stripe and experience sometimes lean on their power a bit heavily; but here Harrelson simply becomes a hard-bitten officer who, in the midst of cozy domestic settings, goes daily (as he says) to hell and back. Samantha Morton, who plays the widow, understands her and fulfills her.
But it is Moverman who gives the film its ultimate distinction. First, he has asked his cinematographer, Bobby Bukowski, to keep shot after shot warmly lighted but enclosed in dark. Excepting the exteriors, almost all the action, casual though it may sometimes be, takes place in the embrace of shadow. Moverman has also perceived this film as more than its immediate story. Its ultimate sense is deeper. Stone and Montgomery go stoically through daily torment as soldierly duty. But Moverman conveys that their lives are the tiniest dot in a vast complex of forces that can take human beings where they had no wish or intent to go and gives them no choice: existence itself as a form of servitude. The texture of the whole film and this implicit theme make Moverman’s debut very welcome.
Space, terrestrial space, is almost a character in some films. At least it colors character. The cowhand in Monument Valley and the shepherd on the Mongolian plain seem somehow enlarged, dramatized, by their very habitat. In a new film set in the Arctic, when a fur-wrapped old Inuit woman leans over her reclining fur-wrapped grandson in their tent and murmurs endearments to him, her feelings seem grander than ordinary, prototypical, because of the immense snowy waste in the midst of which these two are huddled.
Before Tomorrow is the third of a trilogy about the Inuits of which The Fast Runner, a heroic myth, was the first. (I missed the second.) This new one is set in 1840 or so (hence the title), when the white man is approaching--we hear about him--but has not yet really arrived. A central figure in the making of the whole trilogy is a woman named Madeline Invalu, who co-directed with Marie-Hélène Cousineau, helped to derive the script from a novel by Jørn Riel, and plays the grandmother. Her own grandson is in that role. Invalu, who is nearly too remarkable for compliments, is a prime member of a group of women intent on fixing Inuit tradition and character in film form. After this ninety-three-minute film is finished, one astonishment is that, though it has been utterly gripping, the story was less than minimal. An Inuit family goes fishing for a winter’s supply. Father and mother must move on: they leave the grandmother, the ten-year-old boy, and another old woman on an island in charge of drying the fish. The other old woman subsequently dies, peacefully. Much of the film deals with the boy’s learning some essentials of Inuit life--harpooning seals, spearing fish, and so on--to the admiration of his grandmother. The screenplay raises a few questions: a massacre somewhere (presumably by whites) is glimpsed briefly and is unexplained; two puppies suddenly appear on the island. But the very simplicity of the story holds us, makes us almost ashamed to raise questions, as if we were crossexamining an ancient myth.
The fascination is increased by the very fact that this is an enacted film. The people are so at ease that we are bewitched by the knowledge that this is not a documentary. I remember wondering from time to time in Bergman’s Virgin Spring how in the world they got a camera back then. Before Tomorrow is not Bergman, and not only because of lesser acting, but the same naïveté recurs, a simpleminded tribute to the picture’s verity.
Many of these people have appeared in previous Inuit films, but most of them, we are told, keep on with their hunting and fishing. Perhaps what we are seeing is an Inuit version of neo-realism, in which non-actors, sympathetic and committed, move into films from time to time in order to preserve their world. Without anything that could seriously be called talent, their authenticity, the dailiness of what they do, is the fabric of the work.
Fittingly, though, a documentary does come to mind. The first time I saw Nanook of the North, I wondered why no one ever thought of sending aid to these people who were struggling against hunger and cold in icy wastes. That feeling recurs, with a smile, whenever I see Nanook again, as I remember that these people are self-sufficient. They know their lives. They are not in special distress: this is how they live, and they have pride in their survival. Before Tomorrow elicits the same sense of tradition and pride.
The film ends--in fact it’s the trilogy that is ending--with a group shot of Inuit people. The story of grandma and grandson is finished: we are now back among Inuits, who are watching the sea, eating, talking, practicing with bow and arrow, playing soccer, being. How undistressed they look.