A Story of Absent Bodies

The Messenger, Oren Moverman’s directorial debut, is one of the most interesting recent films to tackle the impossible subject of the Iraq War and the legacy of U.S. military interventions in the Middle East. Though The Messenger certainly could be categorized as a war movie, interestingly it is a war movie that shows no war. It is a movie that is all about the effects of war, but does not include one single battle scene and not one image of soldiers on the front lines. Focusing on two soldiers who have been assigned the emotionally charged job of serving on the “Casualty Notification Team,” The Messenger moves the war back home and asks the audience to experience it from a different perspective.

The movie follows Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) and Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) as they perform their job of notifying the Next of Kin (NOK in official lingo) that their loved ones have died at war. As Stone says, the message to be delivered is that these soldiers are dead. There is no softening the blow with such fluff phrases as “passed away” or “moved on.” Stone and Montgomery tell these families in no uncertain terms that their husbands, sons and daughters have been killed in the war. They have been blown to bits by I.E.D.s, incinerated in helicopter crashes, and shot down by snipers. We know this because we hear the Casualty Notification Team recite the facts, and we watch the families receive the news and explode in grief.

The Messenger asks us to bear witness to the outcome of war, not only in the moments of explosive grief and emotion from the families of the dead soldiers, but also in the tension of the two soldiers delivering the news. The movie works in a tight rhythm of restraint and release as it moves between the soldiers delivering the news and the families receiving it. We watch these two soldiers wound tight, their emotions held in check under their taut, impenetrable exteriors as they deliver the bad news and are subjected to uncontained emotion, horror, grief, rage, and desperation. We see in the soldiers’ eyes and the muscles of their faces the response to emotion lurking just under the surface, and we can feel the conscious will it takes to keep those emotions at bay.

As the soldiers move through small American towns, military housing, and the ordinary backstreets of America delivering the news of death, the movie very viscerally and realistically creates a “military environment of war” without actually showing the war. We feel the war everywhere. We see it in the eyes of the wives peeking out behind the playground fence on the Army base as they watch Montgomery and Stone walk up the street and wait to see whose husband was killed. We see it in the tears and the cries of outrage and denial from the families learning that their loved ones are dead.  We see it in the small American flags peppering the lawns of the homes of the soldiers’ families. We see it in a bar when a drunk soldier just back from the war tells a funny story about the war that turns ugly and horrific. We see it etched into the face of young Montgomery when he is alone in his apartment, punching holes in the walls, drinking beer, listening to heavy metal, or wrapping his body in a sheet on the floor.

Seeing and not seeing, bearing witness but also being removed, this is the rhythm of this movie. And it is the perfect rhythm for a movie about a war that has largely been kept out of sight, yet which keeps delivering dead bodies back home.  Dead soldiers are everywhere in this movie, but we don’t see any of them. We see their shirts, their coffins, their crying families. We see their houses, their widows, the children they left behind, but we don’t see their bodies. The movie opens with a close-up of Sergeant Montgomery’s eye. It goes in and out of focus as he struggles to see. We understand that he has just returned from the war, that he is recovering from his injuries, and that he is carrying one hell of a burden. Yet we are not given any details about Montgomery’s experience of the war even though we see the effect of the war on every inch of his body, in his every twitch, stare, and step. We can only imagine what he has gone through. There is such incredible tension in this young soldier’s body, yet so much ambiguity about what is actually wrong with him. His vision is obstructed, and our vision of understanding him is obstructed, just like our vision of the “phantom war” is obstructed by the media that censors it. As Montgomery struggles to see, so do we.

Largely this movie is about the emotional affect of absence. We witness the outcome of the tragedy of war through a soldier’s eye, but we don’t see the actually bodies of war.  This is not Saving Private Ryan. Yet, by focusing on the families who receive the news of the casualties and on the two soldiers delivering the news, somehow the movie is much more intense because we are invited to look in at these very personal experiences and the interior of war through its tragic human outcome. At one point in the movie, Will Montgomery says, “The funeral of every combat soldier should be broadcast for everyone to see.” In a way, this movie is broadcasting a war that has been efficiently excised from the public media.

To make the movie seem powerfully real, Mortensen didn’t allow for any dress rehearsals for the scenes in which the news is delivered to the families. In fact, Harrelson and Foster weren’t even told who the actors would be who would receive the news, so they (as would be the case with real casualty notification soldiers) were completely unprepared for the response they were going to receive. They were taken completely by surprise, and this strategy clearly helped create the film’s incredible tension between the intense emotions of families who receive the news versus the repressed emotions of the soldiers delivering it.

Every scene in the movie is exploding but simultaneously restrained, just like the image of war here at home is restrained even though its presence is felt everywhere in the homes of the families of soldiers who have died.  So much of the film’s energy hinges on the tension between the men who cry and the men who don’t. In one scene, the soldiers tell a Hispanic man that his daughter was killed in the war, and the father’s grief comes spilling out in tears and cries of desperation. His utter sense of loss and tragedy is completely unrestrained as Montgomery and Stone look on and hold back their emotions. In fact, every father in this movie cries. One cries and then lets loose with rage; another cries then vomits up his grief; another has a face of stone which turns to the most tender and loving tears for his daughter who lost her young husband.  As emotional pain spills all around them, the soldiers attempt to remain withdrawn, to not involve themselves in these human outbursts, yet we can see their response lingering just inside their eyes.

The movie’s incredible tension also centers on the absence and presence of bodies. The whole movie focuses on dead bodies which we never actually see, yet the bodies delivering the news of this death are also instructed to hold back the body. Part of the protocol for being on the Casualty Notification Team is to never have physical contact with the families receiving the news. No hugs, no handshakes, no pats on the back. The bodies must not touch. This creates tension between the real physical world affected by the tragedy of war – the families – and the bodies of Montgomery and Stone who are trying to hold back their own body as they interact with the very real bodies of the families. Montgomery and Stone are clearly human, and they are sent to these families as human beings, yet they are supposed to comport themselves as if they are pieces of paper delivering a message. They are asked to be there in person and to inform the families of the deaths, yet they are also asked to remove themselves from their bodies. As Montgomery finally gives into his human emotion and reaches out and puts his arms around the crying, vomiting father, our relief is tangible, and we wonder in astonishment how any system can attempt to assign protocols to grief and loss.

The main character who breaks down the barrier between the bodies of the messengers and the emotions that reside inside them is Samantha Morton’s Olivia. When the soldiers deliver the news to her, she immediately reaches out and grabs their hands. Instead of letting out her own grief, she acknowledges that “This must be very hard for you” and accesses the soldiers’ emotions, a scene which clearly turns the whole protocol of “Casualty Notification” on its head. Morton’s Olivia is an odd character.  She, like the movie itself, is simultaneously bursting and holding back. Her body is enormously fleshy and real, yet she obviously keeps her emotions contained as someone who understands the “reality” of military life. Olivia’s story also dovetails beautifully with the film’s relentless interrogation of the phantom body of war. She talks about her dead husband and brings him to life only after he is dead. She talks about how the war changed him – how his shirt smelled of rage – yet there is only his shirt to tell his story but no body. It’s interesting that she works in a storage facility. When Montgomery, who falls for her, visits her on the job, she is surrounded by rows and rows of storage units. In a way, her job at the storage facility and the way that she inhabits her body and her emotions is critical to how the film itself functions in investigating how we store and release emotions. Those rows and rows of closed doors are portals to stories we will never see, just like the rows and rows of coffins returning home are stories that are never told.

One of the things that is remarkable about Morton’s character – how she dresses, lives, and comports herself – is how perfectly she embodies the military class. The movie very effectively makes us feel we are experiencing this military life as it exists on the home front with military families. We feel like we are really visiting these people, spending time with them, and that they are very real and very much a part of the “military economic class.” We look inside their homes, meet their families, see the people the soldiers have left behind, and what we see is that these soldiers who die in the war are not the wealthy and the privileged. They are ordinary Americans, the working class and the outright poor. These are soldiers grounded in ethnic diversity and the limits of their economic class. We see a black family, a Mexican family, and a white working class family. The set details of their homes are staunchly lacking in pretense or posturing. When we walk into these people’s lives with Montgomery and Stone what we see are real families and people affected by a war that has too often reduced people to yellow ribbons on bumper stickers.

The “bumper sticker effect” of the war is addressed beautifully in a scene where the drunk, dirty, sweaty, and bleeding Montgomery and Stone show up at the wedding party of Montgomery’s former girlfriend Kelly. The wedding party is full of the well-dressed, well-mannered, and well-insulated upper middle class who are obviously a little more than uncomfortable in the presence of these soldiers.  When Kelly’s fiancé makes a toast stating that “Regardless of what you think of the war, here’s to supporting our troops,” we can feel the awkward tension in the room. It’s fine to support the troops with a bumper sticker, but obviously these people don’t want to actually see and touch the troops. The media has done a good job of erasing the actual bodies of the troops from the public eye, so when the very real bodies of Stone and Montgomery show up at this wedding party, they are breaking down the protective barrier between media, bumper stickers and the bodies of the war. There is no denying the messy realness of these soldiers, and it makes for a very telling and uncomfortable scene.

One of the reasons this sense of “realness” works so effectively in the movie is that the mise-en-scène is flawless. Its beauty lies in the understated environment that is so realistic in its attention to detail. For example, when Montgomery and Olivia are standing in her kitchen, we feel like we are standing in a real kitchen inside military housing. The slatted windows with remnants of light filtering through, the Mr. Coffee pot and empty casserole dish on the counter, the dinosaur tea pot on the stove, the kitchen towel and pot holders – these things are all meticulously grounded in domestic reality but also point to the fact that all these domestic touches are material attempts at ascribing a sense of home to a place that is only temporary and will never be home because impermanence is inherent to military life.

Juxtaposed to Olivia’s kitchen is Montgomery’s apartment which, through its very realistic absence of domesticity, shows the dark space of the young soldier’s emotional interior. There is no attempt at making this place a home.  In one particularly stunning scene, Montgomery walks into his apartment and 2/3 of the screen is entirely black and in shadow as a little stream of dirty light leaks through the shades and illuminates his form as he enters the room. When we do see the interior, it is stark and empty – a generic sofa, a mattress with a balled up wad of sheets, a refrigerator with a few bottles of beer, and a pile of unopened mail on the table. The domestic marker for Montgomery’s apartment is the heavy metal music that articulates the noise inside his head.

Director Moverman’s attention to detail is meticulous, yet he does not call obvious attention to the fact that the movie is so impeccably filmed. The outside shots of the environment of ordinary America seem completely flat. But each frame is perfectly constructed to deliver a sense of the reality and economic class of this world.  The scenes when the two soldiers are driving around in their cars are so realistic  that, as I watched the world go by through their windows, I literally felt car sick. Not from motion, but because I could smell the car interiors which looked so real. Yes, the movie is very self-consciously constructed, but it is stylized to highlight the realism. The film’s very stylistic approach is to not distance us from the reality through style. It strips things down to the bare bones reality of the presence of war at home and the lives and environment that war affects.

Though the visual reality of the frontlines is never shown to us in the film and though the film operates very much in the realm of absence, the movie ends with Will Montgomery finally telling his story. We sit with him and Stone as he tells the graphic and horrific account of his experience in Iraq where he watched his friends die while he lived. The movie builds to this moment when we are finally asked to bear witness to this soldier who confesses his experiences. As his emotions are finally released, Stone’s repressed exterior crumbles, and he cries uncontrollably. He has joined the ranks of the men who cry. Suddenly, after all this time, the repressed emotions surface, and the body is in the room with us: Will’s body, the bodies of the soldiers he watched die, Stone’s body as he finally releases everything it’s been holding back, and all the stories that have not been told and bodies that have not been seen.

As we bear witness to Montgomery and Stone and the families who their news affects, the movie itself becomes a kind of messenger to the public. It shows us a side of war that we never see. This invisible phantom war and the powers that wage it have done so much to keep the reality of the war from public view. The war has been lasting for what seems like an eternity, yet the faces of the soldiers, the families, the facts of the individuals who have died are kept from us. Individual human lives have been reduced to a yellow ribbon on a truck bumper, but this movie puts real human lives into the picture. In a recent interview, Woody Harrelson said that he never imagined himself playing a soldier because of his politics. When he decided to accept this role, one of the first things he did was visit soldiers who just returned from the war:

One of our first road trips was to go to Walter Reed Hospital. And we spent some time with the men and women there, and although, it’s one of those ironic things because you think going there, you’re going to see a lot of people who obviously have been injured, lost legs, have been burned or blinded, and you think, you know, you’re going to be really depressed. But I’ve got to say, it was one of the more uplifting experiences I ever had with some men and women who just blew my mind. They were just amazing people.

Woody Harrelson’s response to playing a soldier and meeting the veterans very much underscores the sentiment of The Messenger. This movie is not so much about the debate over the war itself but about showing the very real effects of war on the people who fight it and their families who have to live with it.  By asking us to bear witness and experience the tensions between the soldiers and the families, what we see and what we don’t see, and by showing the economic reality of the “military class,” the movie addresses the fracture in American culture over the war and shows that, regardless of your political position, these are real humans who are affected by war, die by it, and leave heartbreak and incredible loss and mourning behind. The movie attempts to be neither staunchly patriotic nor anti-war. It is simply showing how things are, that this is a reality of what happens in war and the human lives that are lost performing their jobs as soldiers. It is a message worth delivering and a story worth telling.

KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. Her work has appeared in Punk Planet, Berkeley Poetry Review, Bad Subjects, and Bullhorn. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: knicolini@gmail.com.





Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.