35 Shots of Rum (2009), the very fine new film by Claire Denis, has a recurring image that drew me right in: a father and daughter eating together in the kitchen. Their compact Parisian apartment is still large enough to contain a living room, yet their choice to eat while standing says a lot about two people who are comfortable with each other yet also eager to move forward. The tension between the oppressiveness of family and the fear of its members to change is at the heart of Denis's movie. Even when they have company for dinner, he has to stand too.
Lionel, the father (Alex Descas), is a train engineer, in perpetual motion without really going anywhere. His young-adult daughter, Jo (Mati Diop), spins her wheels in a music store. In the same apartment building are long-time neighbors pining for each of them: Noe, an intense, wayward Brazilian immigrant (Gregoire Colin), represses his feelings for Jo; Gabrielle, a middle-aged cab driver (Nicole Dogue), carries a rather vibrant torch for Lionel. One evening in a tavern, dancing and booze lead one of these characters to make a move on another, while one of the other pair experiences rejection at the hands of the other.
That's pretty much all that happens in 35 Shots of Rum, save for a climactic wedding that's wisely left offscreen. Yet Denis, whose previous credits include the Billy Budd update Beau Travail, which I found hard to penetrate, and that grisly vampire movie Ed talked Jason into reviewing, which I will never see, is attuned to the seismic shifts in familial relationships and alive to the despairing beauty of Paris after dark. The atmosphere of the film is charged, but Denis never pushes her effects. 35 Shots of Rum is like Goodbye, Solo without the plot schematics, or Summer Hours bereft of that horrid house. Lionel and Jo's home feels lived-in, and you feel a twinge of rue when it's time for one of them to leave.
The piercing drama The Messenger (2009) is, for all its Iraq War topicality, like a buried treasure unearthed from the vault of 70s American cinema. It features some of the freewheeling, high-wire acting of Hal Ashby's The Last Detail, only with both of its leads playing variations of "Bad-Ass" Buddusky. Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), injured in Iraq by an IED, returns home restless and angry, his feelings only intensified after being assigned to a Casualty Notification Team. Teamed with Cpt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), an older veteran and recovering alcoholic, Will feels ill-suited for the thankless task of notifying "NOKs" (next-of-kins) of the deaths of family members serving overseas, and Tony's rules -- "Always say 'killed' or 'died," "Never touch the NOK" -- do not help.
Foster and Harrelson have been effective onscreen before, but in The Messenger each has the thrilling volatility of Jack Nicholson in his prime. In The Last Detail, Nicholson's Buddusky was a cocky Navy officer eager to give a younger sailor a taste of life before taking him to the brig. Foster plays Will as a young man driven by pure gut instinct, the kind that kept him alive in wartime but leaves him lost and disconnected with his new assignment. As Tony, Harrelson is more self-contained, only gradually revealing that his rigid adherence to protocols reflects the 12-step program that got him sober. When Will chucks the rule-book and starts connecting with the NOKs, Tony loses his bearings and falls off the wagon.
The Messenger was directed and co-written by first-time filmmaker Oren Moverman, who deftly sidesteps most of the perils in his story's emotional minefield. Like Hal Ashby, he is extremely generous with actors, not only his two leads but the supporting players who display an unpredictable gallery of reactions to the bearers of bad news. One dead soldier's girlfriend (a pitch-perfect [sorry Tom, but sometimes a cliche fits] Yaya DeCosta) responds by making small-talk laced with denial; she won't stop talking out of fear of what they're going to say. Another's father, the mayor of the town (Steve Buscemi, his best work in years), knows immediately why they are there, exclaims "Oh, no!", then browbeats Will and Tony all the way back to their car. During the film's critical juncture, when Will gets involved with a grieving yet dignified widow (the remarkable-as-usual Samantha Morton), Moverman takes a page from Robert Altman's playbook, slowly zooming in and then reverse-zooming out of their scenes, taking what could have been a predictable turn of events and conveying the characters' uncertainty of what to do next.
Like many performance-centered directors, Moverman occasionally errs on the side of flamboyance: one protracted sequence, where Will and Tony make drunken toasts at Will's ex-girfriend's wedding reception, is as misconceived as this kind of scene always is. The Messenger is similar to The Hurt Locker in how it's been amusingly hailed as apolitical when its antiwar message is explicitly clear, and consequently here and there are moments of shouting when silence would be better. Yet I remain haunted by the film as its flaws fall away. Reviewing Platoon many years ago, Roger Ebert quoted Francois Truffaut as saying that "it's not possible to make an antiwar movie, because all war movies...end up making combat look like fun." Ebert went on to argue that Oliver Stone had achieved what Truffaut claimed was impossible. Yet I think it's The Messenger that achieves what Platoon and The Hurt Locker and so many other war films ultimately fail to accomplish -- by depicting the struggle at home.