Ben Foster stars as Will Montgomery, a U.S. Army Staff Sergeant who has just returned home from a tour in Iraq and is assigned to the Army’s Casualty Notification service. Partnered with fellow officer Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) to bear the bad news to the loved ones of fallen soldiers, Will faces the challenge of completing his mission while seeking to find comfort and healing back on the home front. When he finds himself drawn to Olivia (Samantha Morton), to whom he has just delivered the news of her husband’s death, Will’s emotional detachment begins to dissolve.

Superb performances in honest account of army procedure.

Melbourne International Film Festival: In Oren Moverman’s The Messenger, the story of two U.S. Army soldiers assigned to notify the next of kin of a death in action, Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster both have receding hairlines that have been buzz cut back to a mere shading. Their faces are open and they literally look like they’re ready to butt heads. The two leads give nuanced, lived in performances that unfold slowly but with certain determination, and it means that scenes Moverman might have feared for their predictability, or prior resemblance to earlier movies, can be attempted with an honest emotional grace.

Set during the height of the insurgency in Iraq, where America was suffering casualties every day in cities such as Baghdad, Mosul and Fallujah, The Messenger is not so much an anti-war movie as one that acknowledges the deep fractures and flaws that accompany a nation at war (or partly at war in this case). The film is about the huge burden placed on those who live on, be it family or those who deliver the dreaded news.

Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Foster) is just out of physical rehab, having spent months recovering from an IED attack that killed his friend – he lives in a functional apartment, drinks too much and can’t really be bothered saying the polite thing anymore. He appears to have it together, but you’re not entirely sure what he has left to hold to him. Assigned to partner Captain Tony Stone (Harrelson) he is at first shocked by the experience of watching his superior notify the next of kin, and then determined to undertake it himself.

Getting close to his characters but never wallowing in the grief they confront, Moverman – making his directorial debut after writing credits that include I’m Not There and Jesus’ Son – show the procedures that govern each visit: do not touch the NOK (next of kin), do not wait for them if they’re not at home, be clear that a death has occurred. As is the way of monolithic organisations, the U.S. Army has turned the process into a cold ritual, and that suits Stone, a veteran who loves serving in the armed forces because it centres a life he would otherwise have lost control of years prior.

Montgomery’s presence challenges the adherence to the rules that Stone prefers, which may have some good to them once the younger man finds himself attracted to the widow of a deceased soldier. As Olivia Pitterson, Samantha Morton no longer has the ethereal glow of her early roles such as Minority Report. The passing of time has altered her face and body and now her emotional flightiness is painful as opposed to poetic. Her scenes with Foster, who until now has played unstable men in the likes of 3:10 to Yuma and Hostage, are finely balanced, turning on the space between two bodies as much as the words exchanged.

The unexpected, generally harrowing, nature of the responses the two men receive – someone might throw up, or physically attack them – threatens to burn out their empathy, which is why they favour black humour when appraising their situation. It’s both a comfort and a defence mechanism, and the audience is initially seduced the same way. Harrelson, with his juicy line readings, knows how to enjoy saying what shouldn’t be said. But once the audience has laughed with him, the movie steadily peels back the various layers of both men and gets at what both truly don’t way to say. That’s a fair achievement.

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1 hour 53 min
In Cinemas 11 November 2010,
Wed, 02/16/2011 - 11