Get the mes­sage

It may have taken two years to open here, but Oren Mover­man’s well-re­searched drama ex­poses the un­happy truths of war on the home front, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film Reviews -

WHERE HAS this been hid­ing? Much has been made of the fact that The Beaver has been lurk­ing on the shelf for a sus­pi­ciously long pe­riod. When com­pared with Oren Mover­man’s de­but, that Mel Gib­son drama ap­pears, how­ever, to have been flung hur­riedly into un­pre­pared cin­e­mas. Re­leased in the US dur­ing 2009, the pic­ture se­cured Woody Har­rel­son a best sup­port­ing ac­tor nom­i­na­tion at the cer­e­mony be­fore last.

Fear not. The film turns out be a very pow­er­ful – if oc­ca­sion­ally rather the­atri­cal – treat­ment of a sen­si­tive sub­ject. Ben Fos­ter, hith­erto a strong sup­port­ing player in in­die fare, turns up as Will Mont­gomery, a re­turn­ing Iraq vet­eran un­will­ingly pressed into the del­i­cately named “be­reave­ment no­ti­fi­ca­tion” unit. These are the of­fi­cers who are de­tailed to in­form next of kin that their loved ones have been killed abroad.

Har­rel­son is char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally earthy as his su­pe­rior, a vet­eran of the first Gulf War, who in­sists that they play strictly by the rule­book. No phys­i­cal con­tact should be made with the be­reaved. If the next of kin is not at home they must im­me­di­ately turn on their heels. The an­nounce­ment ad­heres to a firm tem­plate. (Mover­man, writer of I’m Not There and Je­sus’ Son, has clearly done his re­search.)

In a pe­cu­liar way, the no­ti­fi­ca­tions play like ac­tion se­quences in this orig­i­nal take on the war movie. Ten­sion sim­mers as the two men ap­proach each door­way. Con­trast­ing ex­plo­sions of emo­tion then bat­ter the screen. Some are an­gry. Oth­ers are dis­be­liev­ing. A few man­age sym­pa­thy for the men car­ry­ing out their un­en­vi­able duty.

Shoot­ing with a mo­bile cam­era, Mover­man sk­il­fully teases out the de­vel­op­ing re­la­tion­ship be­tween the an­gry young man and his more re­signed, cyn­i­cal boss. But the film is at its best when prob­ing the ways or­di­nary cit­i­zens deal with ex­tra­or­di­nary trauma.

Some­times their re­ac­tions feel a lit­tle over­worked and po­etic. Would a fa­ther, upon hear­ing his son has been killed, re­ally point to a tree and re­mark that it is the same age as his late child? For the most part, how­ever, the pic­ture rings true. As ever, Sa­man­tha Mor­ton, play­ing a be­reaved par­ent to whom Will warms, brings un­easy de­grees of au­then­tic­ity to the pic­ture.

Her grim res­ig­na­tion helps press home un­happy truths about as­pects of the war that the mil­i­tary es­tab­lish­ment prefers not to pub­li­cise. The Mes­sen­ger is a gru­elling ex­pe­ri­ence, but it’s well worth en­dur­ing.

Rules of en­gage­ment: Woody Har­rel­son and Ben Fos­ter de­liver som­bre news

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