Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) receives new orders in the first scenes of The Messenger. Will endured injuries to his eye and leg in an Iraqi firefight, and has the wounds and decorations to prove it, but his latest assignment will leave its own kind of scars.
Will finds that becoming part of the U.S. Army’s casualty notification team is the toughest job he’ll ever loathe. Will joins the soldiers tasked to regretfully inform the closest relatives of their loved ones’ deaths during military service. Many movies feature iconic scenes of formally dressed officials bearing ill tidings on the front stoops of heartland homes. Director/co-writer Oren Moverman finds a rich, original premise by presenting the perspective of these “angels of death,” and critiques war in general without taking sides over current military conflicts. At times, however, The Messenger proves derelict in its duties as a screen narrative.
Will’s new commanding officer, Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a veteran of the first Gulf War, tersely explains the 21st-century variations on the timeless military ritual. “We’re racing Fox, CNN, the Drudge Report, soldiers with webcams — we have to be the first,” explains Tony, insisting that Will always be on call and avoid emotional attachments. When Tony orders “You do not touch the N.O.K.,” you want to start a stopwatch until Will touches the next of kin.
The Messenger's first half unfolds like a series of mini-dramas, and frequently the families take the news even harder than you can imagine. One grieving father (Steve Buscemi) turns his rage against Tony and Will, spitting at them and calling them “cowards” for not being in combat. A brutal aspect of the job is that Will and Tony must become the face of the institution that (from one point of view) got the soldiers killed in the first place. It'd be wrenching work for anyone, but The Messenger conveys its special challenges for men of action. Will proves much more at ease repairing internal combustion engines than managing outbursts of feeling.
Despite his first impression as a callous hard case, Tony proves more emotionally needy than Will. A recovering alcoholic, he calls up Will in the middle of the night to pepper him with questions: “What’s your e-mail address? Do you IM?” Will keeps his own counsel and pines for a former girlfriend (Jena Malone) with whom he sleeps in one of the first scenes, even though she plans to marry one of Will’s old friends.
When a new widow named Olivia (Samantha Morton) takes the bad news with bottled-up politeness, Will finds her soft-spoken reaction even more unnerving that the usual outpourings of grief and rage. As her stalker/guardian angel, he intervenes when she lashes out at Army recruiters chatting up young men at a shopping mall. Tony bluntly informs Will that he’s not only violating procedure, but taking advantage of her sorrow and vulnerability.
Although Foster occasionally resorts to showboating (as in his supporting bad guy role in 3:10 to Yuma), he effectively underplays Will’s sensitivity to the bereaved and seething unhappiness with his own situation. When Will finally describes how he got his injuries and reveals the secret that haunts him, Foster’s less-is-more approach proves much more affecting than the usual histrionics seemingly tailored for award-season highlight reels. Harrelson delivers an overdue grounded performance that makes up for his self-caricature in 2012, but the film seems to strain to give his role equal time with Foster’s.
Moverman strives to craft The Messenger in the image of Hal Ashby’s great, character-driven dramas of the 1970s, notably Coming Home and The Last Detail. Where Ashby could balance humor and pathos without impeding narrative momentum, however, The Messenger slows to nearly a crawl in its final act. It’s hard to fault his interest in probing the men's psyches, but the pace flags and the introspective moments feel like navel-gazing. The film’s first half has enough power to make up for the wrong turns that almost kill The Messenger.
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