Starring Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone
Directed by Oren Moverman
There’s a early scene in “The Messenger” that quietly and powerfully conveys the duties of what must be an incredibly difficult, yet undeniably important job in the military. Two Army officers, Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) and Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) exit their vehicle as a playground full of children and their parents are at play. As they begin to walk away from the vehicle, Tony glances over at the playground. Playtime is suddenly over and everyone is standing quietly at the fence, watching the two soldiers begin to walk toward a house in their neighborhood. They realize that the men are not there for a social call, but to inform someone of the passing of a loved one.
Indeed, soldiers such as Tony and Will deliver solemn news all across the country every day, as the death toll in Operation Enduring Freedom currently numbers over 1,100 for U.S. soldiers alone. “The Messenger,” an emotionally resonant film that expertly avoids becoming a depressing experience, doesn’t focus on the conflict overseas. It’s the emotions of the families left behind and the soldiers whose job is all about delivering bad news where its loyalties lie.
Oren Moverman, a first-time director, wisely lets his actors have a wide berth to work their way through the occasionally tough dramatic narrative. The small-budgeted film primarily keeps its focus on the two soldiers, who are brought together grudgingly. Will, a war hero in Iraq, is wounded physically and emotionally. He’s basically forced into becoming part of a fatality notification unit as he serves out the last three months of his tour while recovering from his wounds. He’s paired up with Tony, a longtime Army veteran who has been part of the unit for a long time – maybe too long. He has a no-nonsense approach to the job, which is heavy on staying by the book and resisting consolation to the people the bad news is delivered to.
“In case you feel like offering them a hug or something – don’t,” warns Tony to Will in an initial discussion of the job. While Will replies that he won’t, you get the sense that he’s not wired emotionally the same way that his new partner is. That sense gets reinforced as the film progresses, particularly when it comes to the notification of Olivia (Samantha Morton), the soft-spoken widow of a soldier, who also now faces raising her son alone. She initially surprises the soldiers with how gracefully and respectfully she accepts their solemn news. Will is emotionally struck by her, perhaps with romantic feelings, as he recently learned his former girlfriend is about to marry someone else.
While the movie isn’t on quite as solid ground in this subplot, it basically tiptoes through the development of their potential relationship. By doing so, it thankfully avoids the clichés and potentially preposterous turns of the story that lesser films might have taken. Morton brings a quiet dignity to her character, who faces an uncertain future with seemingly few people to turn to.
But the movie is at its strongest when it follows Tony and Will through their job, as the viewer practically serves as a fly on the wall to moments when people’s lives forever change. Emotions ranging from disbelief to rage to hysteria are expressed in front of the two, as they stoically explain to strangers why they have arrived. There’s no denying the difficulty in watching some of these scenes play out, but it’s in so doing that you come to the realization that moments like this have happened as long as wars have existed.
The screenplay by Moverman and Alessandro Camon doesn’t seek to make the two messengers into noble soldiers we should all admire. In fact, both Tony and Will are deeply flawed men. Harrelson (who received an Oscar nomination for his performance) does a great job as Tony, a lonely man on the razor’s edge from falling back into alcoholism. He’s matched by Foster, in a rare leading role, as a soldier coming upon a crossroads in his life, with no real clear idea of what to do.
It would seem difficult to understand how someone could serve in such a job in the military for an extended period of time, as the stress and emotional weight would have to be extreme. But there’s a quiet dignity to the job that “The Messenger” conveys that shines a light where few have thought to look before.
(Rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity.)