Time for a serious one today. All of you should watch this movie.
The Ben and Woody show.
After being wounded in Iraq, Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) returns stateside and is assigned to the Casualty Notification Service, under the command of Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a recovering alcoholic and a stickler for the protocol of the job. Together, they deliver the worst possible news on behalf of the Secretary of the Army and become friends out of uniform too, but things come to a head when Will begins to bond with a young widow they visited.
This is not a film about story. This is what Cahiers du Cinema would call a mood piece. The plot is secondary to the characters and their conflicts, both internal and external. This is all about the actors, and by golly there are some humdingers here. I firmly believe that in years to come, Ben Foster will be recognised as one of the great actors of his generation. I was already of this opinion to be honest, but after the one-two punch of being the best thing in yesterday’s mixed bag that was Pandorum and now this, the point has only been driven home more. There is no doubt that Harrelson deserved all the Best Supporting Actor awards and nominations he received, but the fact that I can’t find one single Best Actor nomination for Foster is just criminal. Both of them are exceptional in this film, as is just about everyone else they share the screen with.
Britain’s own Samantha Morton plays Olivia, the newly-widowed young mother that Montgomery begins a tentative relationship with. She is totally believable and sympathetic in a role that could have come across as slutty or desperate with a lesser actress. The legend that is Steve Buscemi also has a small but pivotal role as the first Next of Kin that Montgomery notifies himself.
As I said, the film is more concerned with characters than events. One particular sequence stands out for me: late in the movie, Stone and Montgomery are on a weekend’s R&R and they’ve gone fishing. They are out on the lake in their dinky little boat when some guys on jet skis come racing past, rocking the boat and kicking up spray. Our guys are understandably pissed at this behaviour and shout after the idiots. There’s all sorts of gesticulation, a couple of “fuck you”s. Anyway, Will and Tony come in to moor their boat when the idiots come walking along to the dock looking to make a fuss. Of course, they don’t know these two are soldiers and even though it’s three on two, our guys aren’t going to back away. The two sides come walking in and we see the first couple of punches thrown and then there’s a jump cut to a while later. Stone and Montgomery are sitting in their car, literally covered in bruises and with toilet paper stuffed up their nostrils. This is one of a small handful of lighter moments that have been carefully dropped in to the film just for some brief almost-levity but it is also an important character beat that reinforces a couple of things the movie has been telling you about these two men. Firstly, they won’t back down from trouble even if they at least partly caused it. Secondly, and more importantly, they are not invincible. They are soldiers, yes. Highly trained? No doubt. But they are still just men. They can’t overcome everything. That vulnerability is critical.
This film is the directorial debut of Oren Moverman, who helmed the recent Rampart – also starring Foster and Harrelson, but with Harrelson in the lead this time – working from a script he co-wrote with Alessandro Camon. As a director, Moverman doesn’t draw attention to himself. The scenes play out in long, sometimes even single takes, with nothing in the way of flourishes or fancy camera moves. That might sound dull, but it fits the mood of the film perfectly. This is a strikingly self-assured first feature. I missed Rampart during its cinema release, but now I can’t wait for the DVD.