Best Actor

Ben Foster Delivers in 'The Messenger'

by Matt Mazur

17 December 2009

This year's best independent film happens to contain three of the year's finest performances. The unlikely trio of Samantha Morton, Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster shine in this war-themed drama.
cover art

The Messenger

Director: Oren Moverman
Cast: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, Eamonn Walker

Once in a blue moon, or once every prestige film season, a powerful little independent film comes along and completely exceeds any preconceptions or expectations. Last year Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy was the anointed celebrated indie, grabbing excellent notices from critics for its stark originality and towering lead performance (from Michelle Williams). This year that movie is Oren Moverman’s The Messenger, which is also, curiously, being distributed by Oscilloscope Pictures, the same company that brought us Wendy and Lucy. Moverman’s film is quietly sneaking onto every Oscar prognosticator’s list deservedly, and actually living up to the ever-burgeoning hype.

The Messenger has been nominated already for several Independent Spirit Awards, as well as snagging several mentions recently from the National Board of Review – including a placement on the group’s top ten list as well as honors for Woody Harrelson as Best Supporting Actor (“It’s a little film, so it’s an uphill battle,” said star Ben Foster during a phone interview). The film is filled with rage, subtle grace notes and an aching poignancy that is often completely absent in other high profile films in which themes of war are the centerpiece (see the recent Jim Sheridan release Brothers). Moverman, who wrote the powerful Jesus’ Son and last year’s Married Life, brings a similarly-serene quality to his directorial debut, guides his uniquely mismatched cast of actors through a prismatic, melancholic looking glass that reflects a new kind of Iraq War experience that has not yet been put to screen: one filled with quiet, isolation, fury and purity of heart.

Moverman has crafted a moving work of art that feels more at home with raw, subversive 1970s masterpieces like The Last Detail or Coming Home, films that capture a distinct time, mood and place, refracting the antiwar, pro-humanist sentiments of a patriotic nation that is tired of fighting and losing its young people to senseless violence. Presenting an alternative to depictions of soldiers in the thick of combat, Moverman instead wisely sets the action stateside and focuses on the struggle of the men who have completed their tours of active duty and are now charged with an even more unenviable task: bringing the news to families that their loved ones have been killed in combat. At the reactive, sometimes-volatile epicenter of the story is the recently-returned from combat soldier Will, played expertly by Foster. Iconic, career-transforming performances like Foster’s come along even more rarely than films like The Messenger.

Will is wounded, literally and figuratively. This decorated, multi-dimensional Staff Sergeant, who challenges and often breaks the rules, is guided by his own moral compass and is reminiscent of similarly blistering, break-out leading man turns from younger actors in recent years: Edward Norton (American History X) and Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson). What these three bravura actors get to the heart of (each in his own way, each in a very different role from the other) is how a man whose psyche has been blown into fragments can will himself to put the pieces back together back together again in the face of adversity. What Foster shows is that the human spirit can’t be broken and that the manliest of men, the archetypal “soldier”, can be both deeply sensitive and a pillar of strength, a wonderfully unique paradox finally captured onscreen. While all three actors conjure up moments of intense, testosterone-fueled machismo in their respective films, each manages to capture a distilled, almost poetic rendering of loneliness and vulnerability, a tremendous feat when playing a neo-Nazi, a crack head teacher or especially a shattered veteran assigned a thankless job. Foster gives the most impressive male acting performance of the year, for which he should be nominated for the Academy Award, just as Gosling and Norton were for their captivating, innovative work.

As Will, Foster relishes each moment of this actor’s showcase and thoughtfully composes a character shaped by the military that is not a slave to it’s ideals, who instead chooses to march to his own drummer as he tries to figure out his place in a harsh, new world that doesn’t always celebrate the war hero. He shows the viewer an intimate side of a man bound by duty, changed by combat, who is struggling with civilian life while drifting alone in a veritable sea of loneliness, searching for a connection with someone who understands him. A lifelong actor, who has given strong performances in projects such as Six Feet Under, Alpha Dog and 3:10 to Yuma, the engaging Mr. Foster recently spoke with me to discuss the bravery of the men and women in the armed forces, why he thinks that Samantha Morton is a lot like the legendary Gena Rowlands and why meditation can be a useful in both acting and in real life.

Let’s be honest, films about the current Iraq war have had kind of a lackluster track record. I think very few have actually succeed in portraying the kind of nuanced humanity that films like The Messenger, and maybe The Hurt Locker this year, have really captured. I wondered if you had any preconceptions about films involving soldiers? Did you have any reservations or concerns about playing a soldier?
Well, we’ve had some time. It’s been eight years for, unfortunately, the world to be accustomed to being at war. And, although many of the films that came out early on were reactionary. People, I suppose, felt a need to speak out and speak up. What was different—and I read a lot of those scripts, being I guess the proper age to serve in the military—about The Messenger, that Oren and Alessandro [Camon] wrote, was that it didn’t feel like it was lecturing a political perspective or an agenda. At least in a loud way. It presented human beings as human beings, underneath the “military” of it all, rather than getting wrapped up in the fetish of it. Or the political agenda of it. We’re human beings, and it was allowing human beings to be with other human beings and that’s so rare. At least from my perspective, from what I read.

When I think of a movie about “soldiers” I automatically jump to the preconception that it is going to be overly-masculine or really macho – seeing this film kind of debunked that for me. You and Woody were really able to take it to a place that didn’t feel overly-macho…
That’s nice to hear – it’s a fetish we have: “the cowboy,” “the hero,” that we all love and appreciate. The “John Wayne” of it all. But these are sons and daughters, husbands and wives, these are people’s kids. So many of the soldiers that I met were so young. And we forget that. We like to hang on to the all-American icon. But at the end of the day they are human beings who wear a uniform. They are in service, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that you still have to go to bed at night, you still have to, you know, get your socks off beforehand. You’re a human being. Its not like once you’re military, you’re a superhero, although [some of the most] incredibly brave and some of the most wonderful human beings I have ever met have chosen to serve, rather than be drafted to serve. They’re people, and we forget that culturally.

Speaking of masculinity, I just saw Alpha Dog. That was an intense experience. There were so many great younger actors there but your role (as an addled, small-time hood) seemed to be the most physically demanding of them all. Then you did 3:10 to Yuma and X-Men in quick succession and now The Messenger, in which the body is a battleground. What kind of toll does it take on you doing these extreme, demanding parts back to back?
If I didn’t feel challenged, there would be a different “toll.”

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