When Col. Russell Williams, commander of Canada’s largest air base, was charged with two counts of murder and two counts of sexual assault, shock and disbelief soon gave way to another natural reflex: it’s like something out of a movie. And no wonder. Psycho soldiers may be rare in the real world, but they are remarkably common in Hollywood. Recently, the big screen has been overrun by ramrod military men whose iron discipline masks mental disturbances that range from borderline personality disorder to psychopathic cruelty. Three of the actors nominated for Oscars this year are being recognized for portraying soldiers with serious impulse-control issues—Jeremy Renner as a bomb-squad daredevil in The Hurt Locker, Christoph Waltz as a demented Nazi in Inglourious Basterds, and Woody Harrelson as a volatile sergeant in The Messenger. There’s also Tobey Maguire, who was not nominated but erupted with scary intensity in Brothers as a traumatized veteran from the war in Afghanistan whose heroic homecoming devolves into a domestic meltdown.
Hollywood’s top-ranking villain du jour, meanwhile, is Col. Miles Quaritch, the square-jawed tyrant played by Stephen Lang in Avatar. The manufacturer’s modest description for the colonel’s toy action figure describes this soldier as “a ruthless, troubled and aggressive man who has very little respect for living things, specially the Na’vi.” In fact, he’s a raving psychopath. But Quaritch is just a blunt instrument compared to Col. Hans Landa, the insidious SS officer who’s played with such perverse relish by Waltz in Inglourious Basterds.
And what is it about colonels? These are the officers whose sanity always seems to be the most precarious, in the movies at least—from Marlon Brando’s soul-destroyed Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (“Horror and moral terror are your friends”) to Jack Nicholson’s pressure-cooked Col. Jessep in A Few Good Men (“You can’t handle the truth!”). Scratch a colonel and you find a psychopath—or so it goes in Hollywood’s military ranking of organized evil.
The thing is, Hollywood has found no better containment unit for repressed rage than a military uniform. The flamboyant sadist portrayed by Waltz is a special case—Col. Landa wears his demons on the outside, so the Nazi uniform and the monster are one and the same. And with his multilingual coup as the Holocaust’s comedian from hell, Waltz has emerged as a favourite to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. But Harrelson, nominated in the same category, is just as impressive—if not more so, because his character is drawn on a more human scale.
In The Messenger, which hits theatres in Canada next week, Harrelson plays Capt. Tony Stone, an officer in the U.S. Army’s casualty notification service. When a soldier falls in battle, it’s his job to inform the next of kin. As the story begins, he has to take on a reluctant new partner, Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), a war hero just back from a harrowing tour of duty in Iraq. At first, Stone appears to be a hard-boiled, by-the-book soldier who’s completely unflappable. In briefing his new partner on the protocol of knocking on doors to deliver shattering news, he instructs him to follow the script with cold precision and avoid any physical contact with the bereaved—no hugs. And he guards against sentiment with a grim, cynical wit, reminding Montgomery that, in their line of work, there’s “no such thing as a satisfied customer.”
As the sensitive Montgomery steps out of line, going so far as to pursue a crush on a soldier’s widow (Samantha Morton), Stone comes down on him hard. But as a begrudging camaraderie grows between the two men, Stone’s own rigid composure begins to crack. Turns out he’s an alcoholic who likes to fall off the wagon and raise hell. He suffers the opposite of post-traumatic stress syndrome: as a veteran of the Persian Gulf War, he’s tormented by the fact he never saw combat.
Navigating both sides of an embattled psyche, Harrelson goes from macho swagger to emotional fragility. But don’t expect him to win an Oscar. Though he’s one of Hollywood’s most underrated actors (as he again proves in the Canadian gem Defendor), the Academy will have trouble embracing this battered toy soldier. America likes its military men served straight up, as psycho heroes and villains. In The Hurt Locker, a colonel walks up to the army daredevil played by Renner and says, “That’s hot s–t! You’re a wild man!” In the movies, that’s called a model soldier.