Review Date: 1-17-10
Release Date: 11-13-09
Runtime: 112 min.
Costume Designer: Catherine George
The military calls them the “Casualty Notification Team”, but in reality they are the messengers for the angel of death. The Messenger is a window into their grim world. They can provide good news for no one. They know that their very presence turns stomachs and causes anxiety. While wearing other clothes, they can disappear, anonymous. However, once the dress uniforms are on, there is no mistaking their purpose. This is a remarkable film about loss, grief and redemption, and is without question one of the year’s best films.
Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is an Army Staff Sergeant recently returned from Iraq. He is greeted by a young woman who we presume to be his girlfriend, Kelly (Jena Malone). We soon find out she’s engaged to be married to someone else. Will sustained great injury while in Iraq, and now home, is assigned a new job – Casualty Notification Officer. When a soldier dies, the next of kin are notified in person, not over the phone, and Montgomery is advised to “stick to the script”. No touching of next of kin allowed. Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) is Will’s new partner, and chides him, “Don’t offer a hug”.
Will is issued a pager that beeps “SOS” in Morse code whenever he is needed for a notification. The film takes us through a number of notifications – all of them gruesome and heartbreaking in their own way. In one particular confrontation, Will robotically recites “the script” to bereft father Dale Martin (Steve Buscemi), who, furious at Will’s lack of emotion, attacks him, hitting him and calling him a coward.
Their next call finds them in a middle-class neighborhood. They park next to a playground and adjust their berets in the reflection of the car’s windows. Every woman and child at the park freezes in fear. Whose house would be visited next by death? They proceed up the street, and find Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton) hanging up the wash. She sees them, and recognizes their purpose immediately. Contrary to their past notifications, Olivia is ingratiating, compassionate, sympathetic to the difficulty of their job, forsaking even her own grief.
Upon leaving, Stone remarks that her reaction is probably due to the fact that she’d moved on – there was a man’s shirt on the clothesline – an indication, perhaps, that she was having an extramarital relationship while her husband was away. Will is not convinced, and watches her through the window at night as she interacts with her young son.
Later, at the mall, Will spies on Olivia and her son purchasing a suit, ostensibly for the funeral. When Olivia sees military recruiters talking to young men on the stairs, she harasses them, talking angrily about her husband’s remains. Will steps in to break up the fight. She and her son wait at the bus stop to go home, but Will picks them up in his truck instead. Will ends up back at her house, underneath the car, doing some much-needed repairs.
Another notification call, and this one is particularly sad. Will finds himself in a bar afterward. A banner at the bar indicates the homecoming of another soldier, who enthusiastically tells war stories to his friends, some of which are so deep and dark they are incomprehensible to civilians. Will recognizes a fellow wounded soul, and follows him outside to offer an understanding ear. The young man doesn’t want to talk.
Will sneaks over to the funeral for Olivia’s husband. He lurks behind a tree as Taps is played and the guns are fired. He watched Olivia in her grief.
Another call; this one requires a translator. It’s awful. Still in dress uniform, Will goes to the bar to get a beer afterward. When he returns home, there is a message from Kelly on his answering machine – she’s invited him to her wedding, but now has second thoughts. He pounds the wall. Can’t sleep.
Will goes to Olivia’s house to deliver his unit’s flag to her son. She tells him that they are going to leave town, to start over. He offers his help, and stays for dinner. It’s awkward; grief has rendered Olivia absent-minded and out of it.
The next day, Will visits Olivia at her place of work, a self-storage facility. They talk about their own grief (Will’s dad was killed in a drunk-driving accident when he was young), and go back to Olivia’s house together. The subtext is that something carnal/romantic is going to happen.
Olivia is all nerves. She wants to take a shower. Then decides she needs to make some coffee. She tells Will that she’s not grieving for her husband, per se, she’s grieving for the man he was a long time ago. Finally, the tears come. She tells him that on the day that Will came to her house to deliver the bad news, she found one of her husband’s shirts upstairs and it reeked of the fear and anger that had changed him. She laundered it to get the smell out, and was hanging it up when they arrived. He holds her tenderly and kisses her forehead. He comforts her.
Another notification call – this time, the next of kin (the soldier’s father) vomits and falls to the ground. His wife tries to help him, and Will jumps in to get him back on his feet. Stone watches in abject horror: Will has broken the cardinal rule of “no touching”. Outside, Stone pins Will to a post with a stranglehold. “You did not follow procedure!” “F*ck procedure – they’re human beings, Tony!” replies Will. Stone leaves him and Will walks home.
Stone calls Will and offers up some R & R. They drive to a cabin in the woods with a couple of skanky girls. Will soon discovers that Stone has broken his three-year sobriety by guzzling beer and getting wasted with the skank. The next day, Will and Stone go fishing (and drinking) and end up getting in a fight with some jet-skiers. They are battered and bruised by the time they drive home.
Along the way, they stop off at Kelly’s rehearsal dinner party. (NB: some reviews have indicated that this is Kelly’s wedding, or wedding reception, but she is wearing a red dress, and from all appearances it is the rehearsal dinner) Will and Stone walk in and heads turn – they are still bloodied, battered, and drunk. They sit down at the fancy dinner, and Will makes an awkward toast. They have ruined the entire evening.
They wake up the next morning in their car in the woods. They’ve finally bonded, and Stone opens up to Will about his frustration that he never saw combat action in his military career. When they arrive back at Will’s apartment, Dale Martin is waiting for him. Martin asks for Will’s forgiveness, and they shake hands.
In his apartment, Will finally opens up to Stone, telling him the story of how he was injured in the war. Hearing the story, Stone breaks down. The weight of a soldier’s sacrifice, and the toll of even one person’s death finally sink in. Stone loses it, sobbing.
Will shows up at Olivia’s house as she is packing the truck to move. They share a tender moment as she says goodbye. On second thought, she invites him in as her son plays outside… (subtext: romantic/carnal)… The end.
The character arcs in this film are significant. Each one of these characters goes through a tremendous change. The wounded soldier (Will) becomes whole again and gains a profound sense of humanity and sympathy. The crusty, in-denial soldier (Stone) finally opens up to another human being, connects emotionally, and realizes what compassion truly is. The conflicted widow (Olivia) moves past her anger at how the war changed her husband, and learns to open her heart again, healed. The performances are tremendous here. I suspect that all of these actors will be recognized in some fashion for their excellent work.
The film is shot in a vaguely documentary-inspired style. Upon first viewing, I didn’t notice the camerawork. Upon second viewing, I was hooked. Many of the scenes in this film are shot in ONE TAKE. What this means is that the camera has to serve as the storyteller, panning from one actor to the other, providing the coverage the audience wants to see. It’s magnificent work on the part of the DP (Bobby Bukowski), but also great work on the part of the actors, whose blocking and careful performances allowed the camera to work some magic. I can’t tell you how inspired I was, watching the camera work. Brilliant.
The costumes are also great. The focal point, of course, is the dress uniform, the “messenger of death” uniform. It’s the immediate, unambiguous signal that bereavement is around the corner. Whenever you design a movie involving the military, you will be barraged at some point by “Goof-finders” on imdB and other websites. I know that The Messenger had a technical advisor, so the likelihood is great that the uniforms (and all of the ribbons/awards) were correct. I can’t say for certain, because I am not an expert. However, you’d be surprised how many “experts” there are in the internet forums! When we create a costume like this, we build story into it – every ribbon, every award has meaning and tells of a person’s history. To me, this dress uniform costume works – not because all of the ribbons are correct, or every detail is regulation – but because the message of the uniform/costume (death, bad news, grief, loss) is immediately conveyed. The costume is ominous and threatening, and its impact is instant.
The use of color is very important. With regard to Kelly, Will’s initial love interest, she is dressed in red throughout the film. When she meets him at the base in the beginning of the film, she wears a red dress with a small flower print. Red = desire, passion, lust, love, blood.
Later in the film when we see her at the rehearsal dinner party, she wears red again, in the form of a low-cut cocktail dress. I tried to find better pictures, so please excuse this tiny one. The problem is, again, some reviews call this Kelly’s wedding reception. These reviewers may have missed the cue given by the costumes. Wedding reception implies the bride in white (at minimum), if not wearing the wedding gown itself. I have an email in to Catherine George to clear up this matter.
In any case, seeing as Kelly is the object of desire for Will (at least in these scenes) it is important to note the usage of the color red. Olivia, on the other hand, is costumed mostly in blues and purples. Cold colors. Lack of desire.
When Will and Stone deliver the bad news to Olivia, look at the colors on the clothesline: blue. Olivia wears? Blue. Samantha Morton is such a lovely, beautiful woman, and she is almost unrecognizable here. With her shapeless clothes, and mousy hair pulled back into a stark ponytail, she is a study in self-abandonment. Add to that her apologetic reaction to the news of her husband’s death? Wow.
In the scene where Will comes over and has dinner with her and her son, Olivia wears a purple gauzy top. Again, cool colors. There is a shapeless quality to this top; she looks harried and kind of sloppy. She doesn’t have the time or the inclination to look better, it seems.
When Will comes to her place of work and they end up at her home, she wears a dark blue polo shirt. The color reflects her state of mind. She is not ready to desire or be desired, to lust or be lusted for, to love or be loved.
However, note what she wears when, at the end of the movie, she invites Will inside. You can barely see it in this photo (and I scoured the world for a picture of it), but it’s at the bottom-right of the image – a cream colored shirt with reddish-pink floral print. The introduction of red into her costumes indicates to me that she is ready to be desired again.
Another interesting costume note is the overall use of red white and blue in the color palette of the film. If you make a movie about soldiers and/or the military, the colors of our flag seem a fitting ancillary color palette. The uniforms are what they are: earth tones, sand colors, olive, tan, navy, black. But in the rest of the world, we see pops of this red white and blue color scheme that are worth noting.
When Stone and Will go to the cabin in the woods Stone wears civilian clothes while Will still wears remnants of his uniform – Army-issued t-shirt, BDU pants, boots. Will is unable to let go of the experiences that have scarred him, and his costumes reflect that. Stone, however, wears strikingly unusual civilian wear – shorts, a light blue pullover “golf” shirt, and a reddish jacket, with what appear to be Keds or Sperry Topsider sneakers. I thought this was a really interesting choice, because the silhouette and details were not macho in the least, and Stone is such a macho guy. Since this sequence is the beginning of Stone’s undoing (and ultimate epiphany) I think the “un-macho” costume choice is a strong statement as to who he really is. Bravo and nicely done.
In the end, this movie will probably not be remembered for its costume design, as much as for its great performances and heartbreaking story. However, it would be a mistake to let this great costume work go unnoticed. I hope you get a chance to see this extraordinary film. Watch it twice.