By Ray Pride
In a conference room overlooking Tribune Tower, hiss rises from rain-slick Michigan Avenue, an aural river of taxis and buses.
It’s an appropriate setting to talk with Oren Moverman, director of “The Messenger,” and actor Ben Foster, since their movie is attentive to small sensations of place and moment that reinforce its stark drama. Foster plays Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery, a younger soldier piecing his life together and assigned to work with for-now-reformed alcoholic Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) on the detail to notify next-of-kin when soldiers have died. The first rule? Don’t get involved. Don’t get too close. Don’t touch. Among the other strong performers are Jenna Malone and Samantha Morton as a widow Foster’s character is drawn toward, but the intense, even searing bond between Harrelson and Foster is the powerful heart of the film.
Moverman, a soldier in his native Israel, moved to the U.S. in his twenties, and among his diverse interests, he worked as a journalist, notably on the great movie annual, “Projections.” He has screenwriting credits on “Jesus’ Son,” Ira Sachs’ “Married Life” and Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There.” At one point, “The Messenger” might have been a project for the late Sydney Pollack, who offered Moverman advice on several projects. Moverman’s history of collaboration seems to infuse the rich tapestry of “The Messenger,” which has a quietly idiosyncratic camera style that lingers around the characters and intricate sound design by Leslie Shatz (“The Road,” “Milk,” “Day Night Day Night,” “I’m Not There”). “One of the greatest joys to my experience,” Foster says, “is that it’s the most collaborative industry we have. There are specialists. And one of the great gifts is meeting specialists. Participating with a group, with a like-minded goal is thrilling.”
Moverman adds, “Ben’s also involved, I mean, he goes the extra mile and then some. We had a very collaborative approach to this movie [including that] people were welcome to come to the editing room. Ben was very instrumental in the sound design of this movie. He was there when we were mixing it with Leslie. His voice was heard throughout and other peoples’ voices were as well. This was a movie [made by] a group of people who are friends, as opposed to movie friends. I hope it comes through in the movie.”
Nick Cassavetes, who directed Foster in “Alpha Dog,” when I asked him where over-the-top would be for him, told me, “My man, I hope I never find it!” He doesn’t seem to have filters. “That’s just his personality,” Foster says.
“I have nothing but filters!” Moverman says. Is that education, nature, nurture…? “All of the above. And watching a lot of movies and being sensitive to them. Because they meant so much to me. I wish I could say they mean so much to me, because it’s so hard to find meaningful films. Commercially, you sort of have to dig for them and import them or be handed them somewhere. Then you can find something that’s important on a personal level. I watched a lot of films growing up, and especially when I came to America, and could have access to them, because I didn’t have access to them when I was a kid [in Israel]. Just being very aware of what films do, and wanting to be a part of that. And knowing what’s over-the-top for me, and what’s comfortable, for me, and what I’m squeamish about.”
You sound fearful about being exposed in some way. “I’m sure you’re right. I think it’s also taste, it’s also nature. I like being respected as an audience member. I like to give back that respect as a filmmaker. I really trust peoples’ intelligence, and I think that people have such a visual education at this point, they know how to watch things. Despite being told everything to the contrary of that. I think a movie can go further by giving less, and having you work a little bit more for it.”
Foster jokes, in a cartoon backwoods accent, “He said it good.” He shifts in his chair. “I can’t be, I’m not a movie snob. I certainly have my favorites but I’m also someone who… I like big, and I like small. I like all sorts of stuff. Being, y’know, under 30 at this point, I still like experimenting. It’s an education and I never go into a film wanting to prove something that I know how this works. It’s always going in and wanting to ask a question and approaching something. I’d like to say that it’s always simple and it’s always inspired, but it’s work. We’re all after it, whatever it is. So, afraid of getting caught is part of the job. I’d rather be terrible in a movie than safe.”
“The Messenger,” it’s safe to say, succeeds at posing the questions and offering heartfelt answers.
“The Messenger” opens Friday at the Music Box.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.