The adage is such a part of the fabric of filmmaking these days, that it’s hard to know if Akira Kurosawa originated or articulately restated it when he said: “With a good script, a good director can produce a masterpiece. With the same script, a mediocre director can produce a passable film. But with a bad script even a good director can’t possibly make a good film.” Whether Kurosawa was the messenger or not, it couldn’t apply more to Oren Moverman’s directorial debut.
Best known for his screenwriting work, most notably with Todd Haynes on I’m Not There, Moverman co-wrote The Messenger with Alessandro Camon (in turn best known through his producing credits) without any expectation of eventually directing it. In fact the project had a number of directors attached, including Sydney Pollack and Ben Affleck, before the producers finally turned to Moverman himself.
To follow Kurosawa’s logic, in Pollack’s hands the film could easily have been a masterpiece. The script – about an Iraq war hero (played by Ben Foster) assigned to the U.S. Army’s Casualty Notification service and the relationships he forms with his commanding officer (Woody Harrelson) and one of the first widows he notifies (Samantha Morton) – is superb, bristling with intensity and dealing with human connections in a very real but rare way (bromance has never been as tender yet entirely testosterone-fuelled as this). It’s a story about moments of crisis and the bonds forged in those extreme conditions, from U.S. involvement in the Middle East to the very personal discovery that you’re well and truly alone, that builds into a comprehensive and unflinching portrait of grief, loss and the domestic aftermath of war.
So far, so potentially a masterpiece, but it’s Moverman’s direction that gives the debut game away. Performances aside (a fusion of script and stellar cast make these suitably potent, enjoyably idiosyncratic), his choices smack of self-conscious showboating at best, ignorant obliviousness at worst. The shots seem forever at odds with the story or scene – handheld chaos during a moment of story serenity, a locked off gaze for hectic movement – and this constant camera hokey cokey may have been intentional, yet does everything but pay off. Similarly the use of sound – Moverman’s pride and joy here being the random beeper tones at inappropriate moments throughout – is crass in the context of such a subtle story.
Back to Kurosawa, and The Messenger is certainly well beyond passable, Moverman head, possibly even shoulders, above mediocrity – as his directorial projects in production/development seem to suggest: a James Ellroy script starring Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson no less, and Universal’s Kurt Cobain biopic exec-produced by Courtney Love – but his debut blends far too many hallmarks of a director wet behind the ears with a screenwriter at the height of his powers. Long may those powers continue – if he can keep getting the ‘good script’ part right (and lose the shaky swagger of a writer desperately trying to prove he’s a director too) then he might just find a way to weave his own message into the fabric of filmmaking and, like Kurosawa, give cinema a masterpiece or two.