Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Year of Woody ends well with army flick

By Shayna Murphy

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According to the Chinese zodiac calendar – something you may have glimpsed at once or twice while waiting for an order of beef fried rice to come out of the kitchen at a local Chinese restaurant – each year is governed by an animal whose attributes come to typify the year which he has been assigned.

So it is that 2009 may rightly be declared the year of the Woody – Woody Harrelson, that is. The chiseled visage of this mighty fine actor, who first rose to fame on the hit television series “Cheers” as kindly bartender Woody Boyd, has been splayed across the silver screen this year with alarming alacrity. In October, Harrelson conjured up anarchy as Twinkie-hunting Tallahassee in the zom-com “Zombieland.” November saw him predicting a forthcoming disaster (no, not the film) in the aptly titled doom flick, “2012.”

To the lay frequenter of concession stands and movie theaters, it would appear that Harrelson has slipped his finger into several different cinematic pies. Now as the winter cold sets its clammy grip upon the land, Harrelson tries his hand at a confection more substantial, yet no less delectable in the big screen scheme of things. This time around, he’s in the big pie known as the Oscar-baiter.

Woody Harrelson co-stars as a casualty notification officer for the United States Army in Oren Moverman’s “The Messenger.” As a veteran soldier, Harrelson guffaws and, upon the audience’s first introduction, strikes an image that to most should seem very familiar: he comes off like a godamned raving lunatic.

Callow and brash, Harrelson’s Captain Tony Stone is given over to fits of rage and bouts of self-delusion. His “baptism” by fire – observed during service in Operation Desert Storm – is a trump card he attempts to play against the younger, though palpably more experienced and decorated staff sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), whom he is paired with early in the film’s narrative.

Foster, whom audiences may recall was stuck only a few years ago to bit roles in sub-par vampire films like “30 Days of Night,” shines in the role of a young soldier racked with regret for his past deeds. Foster carefully feels his way through the enigmatic yet unpredictable Montgomery, lending him a perennial air of melancholy. His eyes have seen too much, so it is fitting that throughout “The Messenger,” his eyes remain a constant focal point.

With three months remaining in his tour, Montgomery is forced to grapple with what may be his hardest assignment yet. With Stone, he is charged with notifying the families of soldiers who are dead, wounded, or missing in action of their loved one’s fate. All the while, his personal life remains D.O.A: although his former lover Kelly (Jena Malone) meets him early in the film to greet him with a patriotic welcome, she’s since moved on to a man who seems the stark opposite of the taut and brooding Montgomery. Her new man is rotund and older. He also sports a shaggy beard. It’s a loss Montgomery straight up can’t stand, and not even the attentions of a grieving widow (Samantha Morton) whom he meets on the job can alleviate his heartache.

“The Messenger” follows on the heels of Kathryn Bigelow’s sleeper summer drama, “The Hurt Locker.” While “Locker” seems primed to collect numerous laurels this awards season, “The Messenger,” with its smaller locus of attention, is of the same merit. Moverman, who co-wrote the rambling and spastic Bob Dylan biopic, “I’m Not There,” seems to have learned from his past lapses in judgment.

“The Messenger” steers clear of polemics and keep its focus oriented on a sentimental, more intimate prism than Bigelow’s “Hurt Locker,” which was fixated on one man’s unanswered call for death. How do people cope in times of war with the loss of a loved one?

Implicitly, the film suggests that one of the best ways to depict the current conflict in the Middle East is to turn the lens inward and to focus the narrative on the conflict raging within the souls of the soldiers who are serving.

Moverman and co-screenwriter Alessandro Camon deftly rise to the occasion, and although “The Messenger” transpires largely in the civilian realm of shopping malls and quiet, sleepy suburbia, the setting is deceiving. Harrelson and Foster adorn their finest garb, but they still seem caught in a war zone somewhere. Who needs to be rescued more, the grieving next of kin or the boys themselves, is a question “The Messenger” struggles to answer.

Shayna Murphy can be reached at [email protected]

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