The first thing we see in “The Messenger” is a soldier putting drops in his eyes, a war wound having left him with vision trouble. The drops produce tears; it looks like the man is crying — an irony, given that the rest of the film will have him doing a job where crying is forbidden.
The soldier, Army staff sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), was hurt in Iraq and sent back to the States, where he’ll spend the final three months of his enlistment on the “casualty notification team,” i.e., the officers who come to your house to inform you that your son or daughter was killed in Iraq yesterday. This is not a highly coveted job. It’s hard to do. It’s hard to watch, too, as the movie will sensitively and respectfully demonstrate.
Montgomery is partnered with Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), who had his combat action, such as it was, in Desert Storm, in 1991. Stone takes the notification business seriously and fills Montgomery in on the rules. You give the news to the designated next of kin only. You do not touch the next of kin. You do not hug or cry or stay for a cup of tea or become otherwise involved. You do not use euphemisms like “gone” or “passed away,” lest there be any misunderstanding. You express sincere condolences, ask if there’s anyone the bereaved would like you to contact for them, and depart. Stone treats it with military precision, a “hit and get mission,” and expects the same of his new partner.
This professionalism and detachment is compromised on their third or fourth notification, when Montgomery feels drawn to a young widow named Olivia (Samantha Morton). Montgomery is mourning, too. Fellow soldiers died in the explosion that injured him. His longtime girlfriend, Kelly (Jena Malone), got engaged to someone else while he was away, and now sleeps with Montgomery on the sly.
But the film isn’t really about Montgomery’s extracurricular interest in Olivia, nor is it a “new guy questions the rules and becomes a loose cannon” drama (though there is some of that). It is more interested in Montgomery’s and Stone’s separate emotional journeys — Stone is a thrice-divorced recovering alcoholic — and the way the men become true friends despite their very different backgrounds and attitudes. Foster, one of the more interesting actors of his generation, conveys a host of emotions without melodrama or histrionics, while Harrelson leaves behind his off-camera hippy-dippy ways to fully inhabit the mind of a career soldier who doesn’t know what to do without the Army’s rigor and structure.
Written by Oren Moverman (“I’m Not There”) and Alessandro Camon and directed by Moverman, the movie’s greatest strengths are in those notification scenes. Montgomery and Stone encounter a wide range of reactions, all of them earnestly portrayed by actors both familiar (Steve Buscemi is the father of one fallen soldier) and obscure (Angel Caban, Halley Feiffer, Peter Friedman, and the single-named Portia are all standouts as relatives of various soldiers). What could have been a chance for actors to beef up their demo reels — “Look how good I am at GRIEF!” — is instead simple and understated. We learn so much about these strangers’ back stories in just a few lines of dialogue, a few moments of screen time. Even though we don’t know them or their lost children and husbands, we feel instantaneous and sincere sympathy.
The film lands in the gray area between wrapping up the story lines too neatly and not wrapping them up neatly enough. More resolution on Stone’s struggles with alcohol might have been in order; on the other hand, at least Moverman has avoided most of the cliches. There is great power in examining raw human emotions, especially when it’s done so gracefully and honestly. Moverman’s style is to let the camera remain unobtrusive as the characters express themselves, and this subtlety is his best asset.
B+ (1 hr., 52 min.; )