There is no good way to give bad news. For most of us, the task of informing a person of a loved one's passing is an unprescribed, terrifying and often bumbling undertaking. Although casualty notification officers in the U.S. armed forces are given scripts and a specified protocol, telling the bad tidings to a soldier's next of kin (NOK in military parlance) is a no less daunting and doleful duty. The Messenger is the directorial debut of screenwriter Oren Moverman (Jesus' Son, I'm Not There) and follows two specialists charged with this grim occupation.
Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) has recently been reassigned to noncombat duty after recovering from an IED-induced injury. Despite palpably suffering from survivor's guilt, he is assigned to the casualty notification division under the command of recovering alcoholic Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson). Although Stone--a by-the-book stickler--advises Montgomery to remain uninvolved and on-script, the young soldier becomes drawn to the newly widowed Olivia (Samantha Morton), who receives the news of her husband's death with a mixture of relief and regret. The two begin a tentative romance as Montgomery struggles to reconcile his own unresolved grief with the daily reminder of someone else's sorrow.
Like this year's other current-conflict film, The Hurt Locker, The Messenger walks a precarious path, maintaining the difficult balance between honoring the soldiers of the ongoing Iraq occupation while expressing no overt judgment on the war itself. Instead, the on-screen experiences of the film's characters speak the truth that every war, whether righteous or reprehensible, is a degenerative event. For Montgomery, whose sympathetic instincts are awakened by the reactions of bereaved parents and wives, the businesslike formality of his work is hopelessly inadequate in addressing the emotions of those he informs. Whereas Montgomery has become hardened to the horrors of war, Capt. Stone has steeled himself against the reactive onslaughts of mournful kin. But Stone is not a cold-hearted bastard. Although having never seen real action himself, Stone's respect for the sacrifices of his fellow soldiers informs his actions, decorum and ultimately his relationship with Montgomery. The bond between the two, demonstrated in a final scene, is real. Both find themselves separately weeping as they consider the cost of each conflict, but with an empathic dignity that reflects their esteem for one another.
In one of his first truly leading and very difficult roles, Ben Foster is a marvel. His tight-jawed delivery and quivering facial ticks deliver the poignant ballast his lines cannot. Montgomery is a volatile combination of hard-as-nails seasoned soldier and goofy 20-something kid. It's great to see a performer such as Foster evolve from the teen flippancy most young actors must endure--V's Flash Forward (1996), Liberty Heights (2001)--to the studied, sometimes show-stopping work on display here. Harrelson's take on the brash but comradely Capt. Stone matches Foster's portrayal and is spectacularly executed. Morton, as usual, is excellent, while brief showings by Jena Malone and Steve Buscemi are distracting, but only because of the brilliance of the actors.
Director Moverman, who himself served in the Israel Defense Forces, has made a quiet, moving picture. With scarcely a trace of music--primarily using ambient bar tunes and radio play to provide the soundtrack--and clean, unpretentious camerawork (aided by cinematographer Bobby Bukowski), the film is a spare and simple drama that mercifully avoids overwrought melodrama. In a story dealing with such an unsettling and emotional topic, Moverman's considerate and collected treatment is unexpected and very welcome. It serves as both a tribute to the very difficult work performed by noncombat servicemen and a sad reminder of the horrific aftermath of war.