Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bad news on the doorstep

One of the perks of being done with grading is the ability to resume my role of moviewatcher, and last night's selection The Messenger is a marvelous, somber film with perfect pacing. While The Hurt Locker is sweeping up critics awards (and deservedly so), this makes something of a companion piece, viewing the current war with much-needed pathos and intelligence. The film follows two men, played by Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson, who are assigned the task of informing various people that their spouses, sons, and daughters have been killed. As you can expect, the film is pretty harrowing. The blows aren't softened, nor are they windows into deep thoughts; they simply spill out in raw emotion, and then we leave. These moments may make up the emotional core of the film, but they operate somewhat on the periphery. Actually, almost everything operates on the periphery of the story: a romance broken off, a romance begun with a widow played by the always superb Samantha Morton, and a subtly potent scene in which a welcome home party wanders irrevocably from joking into awkward silence, echoed later by a wedding toast that narrowly avoids disaster. Even the central relationship between Foster and Harrelson never feels like it commands attention. There are plenty of tears, and a rewarding number of laughs, but the film is governed by its silences, and that's I think its central achievement: a sound design that provides much of the drama that goes unspoken by the characters. In one scene, a father's Mozart and a daughter's rock and roll clash moments before the characters confront one another. The film makes prominent use of noise: loud, aggressive rock music, a method of blocking out the silence, aggressively loud phones ringing and talk radio ad television advertisement hosts practically assaulting the listener, and elsewhere equally loud silences. It's the attention the film pays to the details, and by that I include the personal details nailed by the film's performances and richly warm timing, that makes it so deeply affecting and deeply believable. I can't recommend this one enough.


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