Taking its lead from “The Hurt Locker,” another Iraq war film that isn’t about the war as much as it is about the effect of war on the individual, “The Messenger” focuses on two very different soldiers doing one very difficult job.
With only three months left on his tour of duty Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is stateside after being wounded in Iraq. A bum leg and an eye injury sustained in combat will keep him on US soil, but his new assignment takes as much guts as staring down the enemy in battle. Paired with Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) he becomes half of a causality notification team, the messengers who deliver the bad news to the families of fallen soldiers.
“The Messenger” is first and foremost a human drama about how people deal with anguish and a war movie second. In fact there are no battle scenes but the emotional violence is just as jarring as the explosions in “The Hurt Locker” or the wild gunplay of “The Kingdom.” This is the least violent war movie ever. It’s a study of various kinds of grief from rage to acceptance to denial. More interestingly it examines the toll delivering the bad news takes on Montgomery and Stone. “There’s no such thing as a satisfied customer” in their business says Stone.
Stone, with his ever present toothpick, is pure military, obsessed with protocol—in his world next of kin are referred to as NOK and he has a strict set of rules he will not deviate from. Harrelson gives him an unpredictable edge, filling him with the tics of an unstated and probably troubled history.
It’s a commanding performance that suggests that Woody Harrelson is one of the best and most underrated actors working today. I don’t know what happened on his six year hiatus from the screen but he emerged on the other end of it a better actor. He can be charming, funny, dramatic, but most of all, believable whether he’s playing a disturbed man who thinks he’s a superhero (“Defendor”) or the leader of the “Angels of Death Squadron” in a serious drama.
Playing opposite him is Ben Foster, an actor who up until now I have always associated with by-the-numbers psycho roles in “Alpha Dog,” “3:10 to Yuma” and “30 Days of Darkness.” I wrote him off as a slightly more kinetic Bruce Dern type, all bulging eyes and volatile energy, but his performance here is a revelation that should help him escape the typecasting hell he been trapped in. Foster brings a tortured vibe of someone who has just come back from a hellish situation but his character deepens when he begins to look beyond the NOKs as simply being part of the protocol of his job and recognizes them as people.
Harrelson and Foster have many great moments together but a wonderfully low key scene in a kitchen between Foster and Samantha Morton, a war widow he falls for, could be taught in film schools. In one long uninterrupted shot it’s a marvel of understated acting that carefully uses words and, more importantly, silences to portray their delicate, complicated relationship.
Outside of the three leads “The Messenger” is filled to bursting with good performances—look for a powerful cameo by Steve Buscemi and good work from Jena Malone—and only occasionally dips into melodrama. A monologue about the smell of “rage and fear” should perhaps have been rethought, but more often than not it is pitch perfect.