In The Messenger, Will Montgomery (Ben ? Foster), a tight-lipped young sergeant who served heroically in Iraq, is given a new duty that, in some ways, causes him more pain than being on the front lines did. Assigned to the Army’s Casualty Notification service, he must now show up at the homes of fallen soldiers and deliver the bad news to their relatives. His new partner, Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), is a hard-living, tough-nut veteran who goes at this task with a devotion that’s respectful and also slightly fanatical. Tony always utters the right bureaucratic phrases, in the right forcefully neutral tone, to the right people (no one, ever, but the next of kin).
When we first see them enter someone’s house, to inform a woman that her son has been killed, she reacts hysterically, with a wail of tears and denial, and then slaps Tony in the face — a shocking moment, because it slaps the audience, too. Oren Moverman, who directed and co-wrote The Messenger, doesn’t guard his characters; their distress comes ripping off the screen. It becomes a wake-up call to those of us for whom the Iraq war has, too often, seemed a numbing series of television images, with death relegated to a background statistic. The Messenger honors those who fought and died in Iraq by acting out, with an anguished handheld immediacy, how large each of those sacrifices really is.
Moverman, the co-screenwriter of Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, was born and raised in Israel, where he served in the infantry for four years. Watching The Messenger, you feel his bone-deep knowledge of the joshing camaraderie, testy defense mechanisms, and hidden guilt of soldiers. Hanging out in bars between assignments, the quiet, chivalrous Will and the rowdy, womanizing Tony don’t like each other, but the job forces them to watch each other’s backs. The movie is about the mess of private feelings our soldiers carry around with them. Foster, arrestingly implosive, plays Will as quietly undone by his war memories; he can’t see what he did — only what he failed to do. And Harrelson gives Tony an electric dark-hearted vitality and rage. The Messenger could have used more shape as a story. Will’s involvement with a soldier’s widow is a cocky breach of protocol, but almost too courtly, and Samantha Morton plays this woman with her usual virtuoso drabness. Yet there’s nothing drab about the tormented place these men take each other to. You’ll want to go along. B+