Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Oren Moverman's THE MESSENGER: review and filmmaker interview

Grief is good, they say; it allows you to move on. If so, there'll be plenty of move-
ment for most of the characters in THE MESSENGER, a new film co-written (with Alessandro Camon) and directed by Oren Moverman. I'm trying to recall another film in which grief -- and so much of it -- has been as palpable as it is in this surprising movie. We can hear it and see it, of course, but Mr. Moverman (below)

makes certain that we feel it, too. It's that raw.

The whole of this relatively quiet movie, in fact, is raw. Nerve endings are frayed. Not only can you see this in the poor, shocked recipients of the news of their loved one's death, but in the faces and voices of the two military men who announce the deaths to the victim's next of kin. Played by Woody Harrelson (below, right, as the jaded vet) and Ben Foster (below, left, as the younger rookie), these two have their own demons to fight, even as they screw up their courage in order to drop the dreadful news.

The scenes between the messengers and their "prey" are so strong, so beautifully -- gut-wrenchingly -- handled that everything else necessarily pales beside them. This presents the movie with an insurmountable problem, and though Moverman does as good a job as any novice filmmaker (his writing credits are rather amazing -- see the interview below -- but this is his first stint behind the camera), there's no way he could create anything as powerful as these reverse "annunciations."

In order to make the movie more palatable for mass taste -- not that any film that has dealt with the current wars in which American is engaged has been able to attract the masses -- a relationship must bud between one of the messengers and a newly-made widow. Because the widow is played by Samantha Morton, shown left, the incandescent quietude that this great actress possesses is more than able to hold our interest. But the film's construction is flawed. Circuitous and rambling, the story -- such as it is -- meanders. A victim's shirt bears a little too much symbolism and, in the scene in which it figures so heavily, the dialog goes awry, even though the words flow nicely from Ms Morton's mouth.

What saves the movie, in addition to those great grief scenes, is Moverman's refusal to pander to what audiences supposedly want (and usually get). He doesn't tie up loose ends too tightly, nor give us the good old-fashioned all-out brawl we're expecting from a group of rude boys. (Instead he quickly cuts to the after-effects plainly seen on our messengers' faces.) Even in the one scene that really does not need to be in the film -- the wedding visit -- the writer/director manages to cushion the expected crazy behavior (and dress: see below) with some subtlety.

Harrison is terrific, as always, and Mr. Foster, after playing one character creepier than the next (Alpha Dog, 3:10 to Yuma, 30 Days of Night), is a joy to watch as he finds all kinds of ways to make good and merciful behavior appear as fascinating as the sleazier sort. Family members who hear the bad news are played by a roster of fine actors, including Steve Buscemi, Yaya DaCosta, Peter Friedman and Halley Feiffer. As a nod toward our increasingly bilingual country, there's even one presentation made in Spanish.

Moverman is on record elsewhere, and in the interview that follows, explaining that he would have liked to make a movie with nothing in it but the grief scenes. I'd have gone for that and, in fact, might have preferred it. As it is, The Messenger is an auspicious entry into directing for this new filmmaker. I hope it manages to attract a larger audience that have the Iraq/Afghan war films we've been given so far.

The messenger begins its theatrical run this Friday, November 13 in New York City and Washington DC. Click here, and then click on "Theaters" to see the film's upcoming playdates.


meets with Oren Moverman in his suite at the W Hotel, just off Union Square in Manhattan. He's seems genuine, gracious and more than ready to talk:

TrustMovies: In the NY Times piece from last Sunday, it’s interesting how you say that you wanted to do nothing but grief scenes, but of course, as you also say, that would not be heavily attended by the masses. And yet, it seems to me that you’ve still made a movie that is not going to be heavily attended by the masses:

Oren Moverman: What I was saying was that were we to concentrate on that part of the movie, it would have been an enormously powerful film, if it was 90 minutes with one notification after the other, but with no narrative. But I also acknowledge that this would be somewhat of an experimental film.

It would be. And even if was a narrative it would seem like a documentary. But that’s sort of the way you shot your movie, isn't it?

It is very close to that, yeah. Doing it one notification after the other would be a challenge to your ability to feel – over and over again – it may not have the space to let you breathe, so that might be overwhelming.

Yes, because, even in real life these two guys would have their time away from the grief moments. And your movie is like that, too.

Yeah, yeah. That’s what life is -- and not just in the military. We all deal with this.

You are Israeli, right? How did you come up with this particular subject and film?

The Messenger is even more foreign that that, because my co-writer – Alessandro Camon -- is Italian. So we are both immigrants here and we both have our “outsider” perspectives. And we’re both interested in similar things. Alessandro actually started out as a producer.

How old are you both?

He’s 45 and I am 43. This is my first film as a director. As a writer, and I co-wrote I’m Not There with Todd Haynes, Married Life with Ira Sachs, and Jesus’ Son with Alison Maclean.

Of all the Iraq movies I've seen, your film reminded me most of The Lucky Ones. Did you see that one?

Hmmm... Yes, I did.

That's probably because both films look at Iraq from the more glancing perspective rather than dead-on. Your film reminds me of that other film, in that it tackles our current war(s) more obliquely than any almost other film I’ve seen.


Your movie does the oblique thing via the grief of those left behind and puts us in touch with something we really need to feel and understand.

I hope so. One of the things we tried to do is actually have a movie that makes you feel that you have feelings. I think that many movies kind of dull yourfeelings and kind of manipulate them a lot. We were very aware of how dangerous it was to shoot these scenes.

Is that why you did these as improvisations?

Yeah. Just keep it in the moment, keep it raw: one take, with no rehearsals. The actors had not met each other, either.

Not even Steve Buscemi?

They knew that Steve and Samantha Morton were going to do a scene but not which one. But they didn’t meet or speak with them. The rest they did not know at all.

Was Samantha Morton pregnant during this shoot?

No, but she had had a baby four months before the shoot. .

Ah. She is so amazing. I swear, she could turn me straight.

(He laughs) She is so… There is no one like her. Not in terms of acting, not in terms of how she looks. She is so sexy and beautiful and real..

Even with all that extra poundage, I found her more attractive. More so than when she was really thin.

She is a woman, a real woman.

Is she good to work with?

People have different experiences, but my experience was completely wonderful. We had a very loving set. Love was the commodity we were all using. That sounds cliched and all, but that was the only way to make this movie.

Maybe she’s the kind of actress who gets into a role and holds onto it . Like in that film about the British serial killer – Longford -- with Jim Broadbent, where she played Myra Hindley….

Well, she’s not a method actress or anything. She doesn’t stay in character. In fact, she snaps out of a character like that (Moverman snaps his fingers). It’s almost frightening in a kind of way, but she is so good.

It’s also wonderful to see Ben Foster in a gentle role. He can do creepy like no one else: He's like the new Richard Widmark. So I was grateful to see a different side of him.

He has lots of different sides that he has yet to put forward. He’s phenomenal.

One more thing I want to ask you: What’s next for you? Or even better: If you could do anything you ever wanted to do, what might that be?

Well, I have all kinds of projects that are ready to go forward. But that is a really tough question. (He considers for a moment) If I could do anything…?

Maybe in the back of your mind, something special you’d love to do but you think it would never happen.

I don’t have that kind of project. I try to keep my goals realistic.

Well, you’re an Israeli.

Exactly. I am trained in practicality! So nothing comes to mind, but you know what: If I ever wake up in the middle of the night with something in mind, I will give you a call! But it’s funny – I guess I didn’t realize this till now, but I have never been shooting for the impossible, I shoot for the possible. Otherwise it would be too frustrating. And I have no more hair left to pull out!

All photos are from the film except that of Mr. Moverman
with Harrelson and Foster, which is by George Pimentel,
© and courtesy of

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