Death is never by the book. In “The Messenger,” two soldiers delivering the news to parents and wives that their relative has been killed in action overseas do all they can to lessen the blow, but no news of this nature ever goes according to plan.
This job then is as tough as anything in the field. It requires massive conviction and strength under pressure. But as one commander says, this job is a more important way of serving your country, because doing this is holy.
The two up for the job are Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) and Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), Stone a veteran showing Montgomery the ropes. No hugging, no added sympathy, no lingering, no sunglasses and no doorbells. The Yankee Doodle jingle followed by a death telegram is not a great way to start one’s day, Stone explains.
But Director Oren Moverman does not envy or glorify their job for one moment. As they hit home after home and break the hard news, there’s an unexpected complication and reaction behind each door. One family learns what has happened to their son before the soldiers say a word. One father nearly beats his daughter when he learns she “married that dirtbag after all,” and then is instantly crushed to hear the bad news. Another man lashes out in anger at Montgomery and Stone, saying, “Why aren’t you dead?”
These sequences are so devastating and unpredictable that you could make a separate movie about each family as soon as Montgomery and Stone walk out the door. Their episodic nature feel as intense and isolated as the war sequences in “The Hurt Locker,” and the psychological ramifications have the emotional impact of the firings in “Up in the Air.”
But the movie evolves into something more than a series of depressing vignettes. After visiting the home of Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton) to report the death of her husband, Montgomery becomes curiously attracted to her. He can sense there is something she is not letting on. “The Messenger” then is about getting to know someone in a time of grief, even though they have a job that requires the opposite.
“The Messenger” is not all schmaltz. It has some heart and even comedy to it. Its inevitable discussions about politics and war are poignant and stirring. It treats post-traumatic stress disorder bluntly, and it finds depth in these soldiers beyond dealing with grief.
Harrelson gives the film’s best performance, and it’s one of the best of his career as well. His Oscar nominated turn shows unexpected range, and he’s almost twistedly funny and sardonic when off the job. Take Foster’s performance, typically a movie tough guy, and here a grizzled, hardened soldier, and yet Harrelson finds a way to top him. He’s so convincing as a guy who has just been there.
Many would say this is a writer’s and actor’s film, but Moverman’s camera has the urgency of almost any other war picture. On the job, Moverman switches to a handheld cam and captures the troubling news with documentary detail. And yet at home, he frames Montgomery and Harrelson in artful tableaus. There’s one beautifully long static shot that seems to hug the bodies of Montgomery and Olivia as she reveals how she truly feels about her husband’s loss. To be so patient is a wonderful gift for a filmmaker.
“The Messenger” is the war film that isn’t told enough, and yet it’s the story that happens every day.