Two soldiers knock on a door. When it opens, they deliver the devastating news no one with a loved one in the military ever wants to hear.
This scene plays out time and again in "The Messenger," arriving in Los Angeles on Friday, as the film deals with two soldiers assigned the task of telling next of kin their family member has been killed in the line of duty. The film is also a clear-eyed look at a domestic consequence (and administrative mechanism) of war perhaps previously known only to those with first-hand understanding as well as a vehicle for emotionally resonant performances by Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson and Samantha Morton.
Directed by Oren Moverman from a screenplay he co-wrote with Alessandro Camon, the film's spine comes from the notification scenes, as Foster, new to the detail, and Harrelson, a cynical old hand, go about their grim work.
Those scenes were all shot in a similar way, so that Foster and Harrelson never saw the other actors before shooting. All exchanges were scripted, but when the pair knocked on that door, they didn't know who would be on the other side.
"They didn't have any conversations with them, not even a hello," said Moverman of how he kept the other actors separate from Harrelson and Foster. "Nobody knew how we were going to shoot it, everything happened in the moment. We shot long takes so the active moment would be the beginning of the scene, and the cut would be the end of the scene. No cuts in between. And everyone was encouraged to go off-script."
Each notification was shot multiple times, and Moverman and his crew would focus on shooting different elements of the scene with each take so the footage could be cut together if needed. (A couple of the notifications do in fact play out as a single, uninterrupted take.)
Where Foster's and Harrelson's characters are at first wary of each other, they do come around to a point of mutual understanding and respect. Foster's staff sergeant, just back from combat duty himself, also enters into a relationship with one of the widows he has notified (played by Morton). It's not a romance, exactly, but the two do share something intimate.
"I talked to them about creating a relationship that can't be explained," said Moverman.
The deep ethical and emotional conflicts raised by the budding relationship -- is he taking advantage of her and is she really grieving? -- are addressed head-on by a line of dialogue spoken by Morton.
"She needed to make that point," said Moverman, "because then you really can't judge them. That was very conscious, that we have to say that to the audience -- 'You're looking at us and you want to judge us, but you don't know anything about us.' "
It's no secret that movies dealing with the military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have struggled to interest audiences, but Moverman hopes his message will supersede any preconceived notions or reductive labels.
"Even though it was a war-themed movie and about the military, we never approached it as a war movie," Moverman said. "Everybody else tried to, financiers, people we had to talk to, they definitely had opinions about why we wouldn't make this movie. For us, it was about universal themes -- how do you get back to life having suffered loss and pain? And the answer to that was so simple and true from our perspective. Friendship, love, romance, parenthood, humor, all the things that make life worth living."
The real Moodysson?
With his first three films, "Show Me Love," "Together" and "Lilya 4-Ever," Swedish filmmaker Lukas Moodysson showed himself to be one of contemporary world cinema's great humanists, a filmmaker of limitless compassion. Then he made a pair of shocking experimental works that surely confused anyone following his career.
But with "Mammoth," opening Friday in New York City and available nationwide Wednesday via video-on-demand, he's not only returned to conventional narrative filmmaking but also made his first film in English. On its debut earlier in the year at the Berlin Film Festival, Moodysson seemed poised for his greatest triumph yet.
Starring Michelle Williams and Gael Garcia Bernal as an upscale couple in New York City -- she is an emergency-room doctor and he designs video games -- the film examines the impact their often self-absorbed decisions have both on their young daughter and the world-at-large.
The film's leitmotif of technology's false intimacy is illustrated in sad voice mails Williams and Bernal leave for each other as he travels the globe for his work. Her isolation from the world and her own feelings are encapsulated in the image of her running on a treadmill on a barren rooftop as she is shut off from the city beneath her.
"Mammoth" was met with derisive, dismissive jeers when it premiered in Berlin (word was that some audiences found the movie to be pretentious and simplistic). It never resurfaced at any of the year's other major festivals. Moodysson, speaking recently by phone from Sweden, remained quietly defiant and undeterred.
"What maybe surprised me is how the film turned out to be more provocative than I thought," he said. "I thought it was mild and a little sad and a quite kind movie about how difficult it is to live in this world. But in fact there were a lot of people who don't want to ask these questions.
"I'm not really someone who wants the whole audience to like what I do. That's for the cowards."