At some point, you’ll want to turn off The Messenger. That moment will vary from person to person, maybe early as Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is forced to make his first visit as a member of the military’s Casualty Notification Team. Maybe it will be later, as Montgomery and Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) deliver the message that Dale Martin’s (Steve Buscemi) son has been killed. If Buscemi’s screen-stealing performance does not absorb you, Messenger has failed.
Turning the film off is a natural reaction, even understandable. That is the intended effect, placing the audience in the role of someone who does this every day. Grieving widows, parents, and other next of kin collapse under the weight of the news, leaving the soldiers to do nothing but stand there.
Messenger’s goal is not to repeatedly pound these scenes into the viewer’s heads. It uses them as a launching point to build its two characters, neither of whom are fully developed until the end. Will seems over the edge, angry, and a bit of a loose cannon. He begins spending time with a soldier’s widow after informing her of the loss. Tony seems unaffected by these messages; delivering them is his job. He believes in protocol, not becoming involved.
Why these characters act in their own way is the crux of the story, a somber, quiet film with minimal editing. Director Oren Moverman makes edits seem jarring, requiring extensive, flawless master shots from his actors. It is absorbing, delivering a feel that the viewer is in the room these characters. Camera movements are limited, generally to short zooms or pans. The style, while simple, suits the material.
Messenger seems to hit a lull. Both of the leads become drunk, head to an engagement party, and make total fools of themselves. It feels sluggish, even boring. Their antics are not funny, but the scene is leading to a breakdown, a crucial one in fact. You have to force yourself to find this material watchable, yet in the best way. This is not about what the war does to other people, but how it does not let our soldiers go even when they have left the field of battle.
The Blu-ray for The Messenger comes from Oscilloscope in an AVC encode. The transfer is anything but striking, and in many ways so lethargic, finding something to praise or fault is difficult, with the exception of the pitiful black levels. Moverman’s color palette is pale and flat, which does lend some credence to the idea that the miserable blacks are on purpose. Making these images striking or bold would seem unfitting considering the material.
The result is a distracting and flat image. It becomes immediately apparent in the opening dinner scene at 2:48 that the gray-ish quality is going to dominate. Contrast never reaches a peak either, settling into that same grayscale. Colors are muted, flesh tones typically carrying a pinkish hue, although not far from natural. The deep blues of the military uniforms are strong, if not much else. A few scenes involving flowers are marginally bright.
Detail is sporadic, but generally falls in line with the rest of the transfer. Environments can be outstanding. A brief shot of a grocery store aisle 23:25 makes every can, box, and label seemingly visible and defined. Outside of the flower shop around 1:15:49, all of the plants are distinct, clear, and detailed. The same goes for an establishing shot of a cabin at 1:19:50, where the trees deep into the frame still reveal every leaf.
Facial texture is typically lost, except for close-ups. Some mid-range shots can appear slightly digital or processed, although not offensively so. The grain is minimal at its worst, and typically goes unnoticed. The encode leads to few problems, the worst being some sporadic ringing, quite notable around Forster’s leg at 24:13 as he talks on the phone. Other high contrast edges reveal the same issue (an unidentified object in the lower left corner as Samantha Morton shows the storage unit off), yet the effect is marginal. That said, a bit of ringing would be an acceptable trade-off for decent black levels.
Audio in either DTS-HD 5.1 or PCM 2.0 varieties are limited by the source material. Dialogue dominates cleanly, with no ill effects. It remains distinct with flawless clarity throughout.
Limited music, generally ambient, never has a chance to breathe. It exists as more of a background tool to set situations. Some light tracking is evident across the stereo channels, the most active being as some jet skis track across the frame around 1:23:40. Some light ambiance inside a bar seems locked into the front channels.
A commentary with director Oren Moverman, producer Lawrence Inglee, Ben Foster, and Woody Harrelson begins a small section of extras. Going Home is your general making-of (11:40), followed by a 27-minute Variety screening where cast and crew discuss the film. A large selection of trailers follows. The DVD includes an additional feature titled Notification. This is an excellent 25-minute piece focusing on the soldiers who are on the Casualty Notification Team, and their approach.