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.
Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, Eamonn Walker
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.”
What was the physical preparation like for 'The Messenger'?
What was the physical preparation like for The Messenger?
It’s really about creating a landscape. I know it sounds deeply pretentious, but if I can’t see it, I can’t feel it. So one gathers as much information, and allows a mental landscape to develop. And you get down to technicalities. If you get hit by an IED, how does that affect the tendons? How does that affect your leg? Spending time settling with these images, over time, I suppose prep, enough prep, allows for a space where you can just be present. You don’t have to think about “what would he do?” or “what would it be like?” It’s just reacting to the environment. It’s almost a safety net so one can just go where one needs to go. Each role demands a different level of play. For instance, its different for each picture, there are different requirements that you need to honor.
Oren Moverman’s Jesus’ Son and Married Life greatly impressed me. What’s he like as a director and how does the way he frames a scene and paces it – I am thinking about the fantastic medium shot of you and Samantha Morton in the kitchen that unfolds so beautifully – affect you as an actor? He has such a unique rhythm…how do you get into that rhythm and how did he work with you to achieve this?
I worked extensively with Oren. I came to New York for about eight weeks before shooting. It’s a tuning process. It’s like getting to know someone. You allow yourself to fall in love and when you fall in love you can intuit what someone is thinking. You’re hungry before they know they’re hungry, you know? We shared books, documentaries, stories about family. It’s just getting to a point where we tell stories about ourselves, I suppose, and with the filter of this project, how we connect to those things and allow the lines to bleed a little bit. For a scene like the kitchen sequence, we didn’t rehearse anything for the film, there were no rehearsals. He would talk to the actors separately, and we would block, very loosely, with the cinematographer [Bobby Bukowski] just to get some tape lines if we both needed to be in focus. His approach is magical. He gives permission and encourages to go off book and just breeds a very quiet environment where people can just be together. What you see is the first take, unrehearsed, blocked loosely. There’s not too much chatter about it, you don’t want to “think” it to death. Once you start getting really philosophical about it on the day the heart dims and you can really outsmart yourself. Oren is a true master of giving you the confidence to just be.
I’d like to take a minute just to talk about your two main co-stars in the messenger because they are two people who blew me away: Samantha Morton and Woody Harrelson. How was your experience working with these actors?
Well, Woody… he’s a brother. He’s impossible not to love. I’ve had the fortune of working with – I wouldn’t just call them “famous”, but very recognizable. I had never been in the company of somebody who was just so universally beloved, and wherever you go people feel like they are on a first name, old friend basis with him. He chooses his dramatic roles very carefully and that’s come up on a lot of the press tour. People are like “well, you know, you usually do these silly, funny ha-ha comedies.” And if you spend time with him and watch him and feel with him, what is remarkable is that he chooses those roles carefully because it costs something. When you’re put yourself out there, it’s not so much putting yourself out there, it’s being brave with the frailty that we all feel. When he goes, he goes for broke. His heart is so damn big. And he’s so incredibly generous. But it costs something. It was exquisite to play with him. It is one of his finest performances among many. I couldn’t say enough about Woody.
Sam, I have had a severe actor crush on her for years. She was the only one that I could think of, the only one that Oren could think of. We were just attached to the idea that Olivia had to be Samantha Morton. We didn’t know how to get her the script or to go through normal avenues, but she’s breathtaking, just breathtaking. She is deeply intuitive, and brave and deeply intelligent and wild and centered. She’s a woman, you know? A real woman.
The Messenger is all about reactions. Of course, there are the reactions of the families who receive the bad news, but also yours and Woody’s reactions to their reactions. How did you film these scenes? Did you always know how the other actors would react?
Certainly not. In part, as far as reading the script, we knew that we had to deliver the news and they say this and you say that, but because we didn’t rehearse and Oren took it so much farther, in a very extreme way, where those we were identifying, we were never introduced to. We didn’t meet in the make-up trailer, there wasn’t a script read-through. The traditional ways of making films, particularly with these fragile and emotionally-dense sequences, it was really courageous on all parts. When Woody and I are knocking on the door, when we’re rolling film, that’s the first time we’re meeting. So it created an environment that gave us a lot more freedom to be present. It demanded it. You try to create an environment or do enough work where you’re allowing yourself to just be and those sequences were – I don’t want to say “easy” – but its more about inference, rather than trying to figure out. You just have to be with each other and feel with each other and then you do it again and again. All the notifications were filmed in single-shots, handheld, unrehearsed and maybe we did them three times, four times, single-shots, no coverage, nothing was planned and we were encouraged to go off book. It was raw.
Like any good journalist, I immediately went to Wikipedia and IMBD to see what you were all about [Foster laughs]. I was happy and interested to see that somebody mentioned that you were a really big fan of Gena Rowlands. I happen to think she’s one of the all-time best, too. What do you find so intriguing about her?
Well, I think Samantha Morton has very similar qualities. Its strength and fragility. A lot of people can be broken or rage and different actors have their “moves”, so to speak, but they seem to allow themselves to penetrate and be penetrated at the same time. It’s the most sexual act and it’s so heightened. It’s like how do you describe a Picasso? It’s just coming from a very refined and at the same time very primitive place. I think she and Sam have very similar qualities of experiencing.
I read that you were really into meditation, how does that help you find your way into characters? Especially one like Will who is emotionally isolated and so lonely? Is that even a tool that you use as an actor?
It’s hard to separate a tool for life and a tool for work. The technique is transcendental meditation; I’ve been doing it for a very long time. Those rituals are important. Whatever door works for you should be used. And that can be anything. This is one technique of many. For me it allows deep silence inside and it gets rid of the static, it tunes it out. There’s so much racket in one’s life – people and life demands. This technique without being religious is a technology to allow yourself to hear your own voice, rather than spitting back what people are telling you or demanding of you. On a practical, functional level, it allows for more energy. Thirty minutes in the morning or the afternoon is like having a three hour power nap twice a day, and I find I can sleep less, with a clearer head. If I’m going to relate that to work, if there’s more space inside, maybe than maybe there’s more room for someone to show up.
Catch The Messenger in theaters now, as it continues racking up year-end accolades and enjoy bragging to your friends that you knew all along that this phenomenal little indie was heading for big-time recognition.