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Postwar: The Messenger and The Men Who
Stare at Goats

The Stop Smiling Reviews

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Messenger
Directed by Oren Moverman
(Oscilloscope)

The Men Who Stare at Goats
Directed by Grant Heslov
(Overture)

Reviewed by Justin Stewart

The premise threatens emotional pornography: Will (Ben Foster) is a decorated soldier recently returned from Iraq with three months of active duty left. To his chagrin, he’s saddled with an older, abrasive veteran named Tony (Woody Harrelson), and assigned the rat-bastard duty of informing next of kin to military casualties in the family. From the first assignment, you know it’s going to be rough viewing, as a mother, finding these uniformed soldiers in her home, explodes with sorrow and rage, battering them with slaps.

There is a perverse and uncomfortable morbidity in seeing these actors in this fiction film emote upon getting the same news that so many families are receiving in the real world right now, and it’d be shallow and manipulative if that’s all The Messenger was up to. Thankfully, there is enough subtlety and space in Oren Moverman and Alessandro Camon’s screenplay to allow for much more - piercing characterizations, unexpected political conceits, and surprising emotional nuance (the once-dreaded word).

Neither Will nor Tony seems to belong in these suburbs, and since their assignment requires full regalia, they look especially out of place as they walk up to unknowingly widowed husbands watering the lawn, wives hanging laundry, a bickering father and daughter, etc. In his free time, Will seems only able to alienate his once-girlfriend (Jena Malone) and blast metallic post-rock in his room (not the movie’s most delicate touch). One scene in a supermarket shows him disinterestedly tossing soup cans into a cart, echoing The Hurt Locker’s stateside material, in which Jeremy Renner looked bewildered in similarly epic aisles.

Harrelson’s Tony, a veteran of Desert Storm, compensates for the excitement gulf between combat and civilian life by maintaining the jargon (delivering the bad news is a “no-defect” and “hit-or-get” operation) and waging his own private war on alcoholism. His standard order at bars is even aggressively weird: hot water with lemon and a glass of ice (he brings his own tea and dumps the mixture into the glass).

Hardened vets on home soil are nothing new in movies, but The Messenger distinguishes itself because they’re still on duty, for one, and it has less to do with Will and Tony’s acclimation to “normal” life than it does with their complicated acclimation to one another. Tony holds a grudge against Will because the latter saw intense, documented, and awarded action in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, while Will “merely” served in Desert Storm.

The argument they have about it is the movie’s most bracing scene. It legitimately angers Tony that Will can accuse him of “sunbathing in Kuwait” whereas Will saved his unit buddies from firestorms. The petty, almost childish stubbornness that Harrelson conveys melts when he later glumly admits that Kuwait “wasn’t much of a war,” a line I imagine will have varying effects on viewers who fought in that operation. Considering Ben Foster’s more boyish physique and somehow not fully formed facial features, it might sound generic that the grizzled, hardass Tony eventually reveals himself as the more fragile of the pair (Harrelson cries on screen for the first time), but ultimately their awkwardness is mutual and honest.

This is the first movie directed by Moverman, who served four years as an Israeli infantry soldier before moving to the U.S. and co-writing screenplays including Jesus’ Son, Married Life, and I’m Not There. (He’s now working on a pic about Nicholas Ray’s final years, which I’m already praying won’t star Robert Downey Jr.) Eschewing the conceptual razzle-dazzle of I’m Not There, The Messenger is always just left of straightforward, which keeps it interesting. When Will delicately dips a toe into the forbidden waters of relationships with the widowed, it plays out with an unpredictable innocence. Samantha Morton’s Olivia faces the news of her husband’s death with a sad realism, and her slow warming to Will feels natural, not contrived.

Moverman’s movie is also about acting. The near-absurdity of their assignment echoes that of the actors’, as they inject themselves into a situation in which they don’t belong, read from a script, and feign rigid detachment. As is usually the case, the hardest roles they have to play are their own.

* * *

Smugness marches on in The Men Who Stare at Goats, starring George Clooney and directed by his bestie, actor Grant Heslov. While I don’t think it’s too soon to mine the Iraq War for chuckles, this shrill, irritating, and incredibly self-satisfied effort mostly amuses itself. It’s not always fair to compare comedy to drama, but The Messenger, which also aims to show a side of the war you don’t see, is also funnier, thanks to its precise gallows humor and Woody Harrelson. In another one of his slapstick-throwback performances, Clooney mugs it up as Lyn Cassady, a Special Forces operator in Iraq who schools journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) to the U.S. Army’s past and current employment of parapsychological tactics in combat. Through Lyn, Bob meets the experimental New Earth Army’s founder (Jeff Bridges), Lyn’s former partner (Kevin Spacey), and is kidnapped by a criminal gang in Iraq.

It’s Heslov’s sarcastic, assuming tone, not the actors, that makes Goats so intolerable, and it begins immediately with the opening credits: Shock and Awe footage scored to sneering Britpop. You could likely simulate the experience by skimming Jon Ronson’s original book of the same title with The Daily Show on in the background. Everyone’s a clown, as Heslov and co. roast both New Age pomposity and the military at large. Repeated Jedi references are meant as hilarious because McGregor was in those prequels. The few funny bits (Spacey’s “dim mak” death touch “can take 18 years to take effect,” American soldiers are taunted that their “wives are back home having sex with Bart Simpson and Burt Reynolds”) are suffocated by the arrogance of its politics. It’s all barely less one-note than the Barney “I Love You” song that, we learn, is used to torture American captives.

 

 

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