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The Messenger

Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster in The Messenger.

Deadly Couriers: The Messenger

His new mission, US Army Sergeant Will Montgomery’s commanding officer tells him at the beginning of The Messenger, is not just important, “it’s sacred.” Montgomery (Ben Foster), still recovering from battlefield injuries suffered in Iraq and with only three months remaining on his enlistment, is reassigned to a casualty notification team. He and his new superior, Captain Tony Scott (Woody Harrelson), will be tasked with informing next-of-kin of the death of a loved one.

The commander tells Montgomery he needs “men of stature,” and that Montgomery is “a goddamned hero,” but the sergeant looks a little shell-shocked. As he listens, and later as he’s briefed by Scott, a sort of mordant good ol’ boy, it’s becoming clear that this assignment will require another kind of heroism.

As Montgomery begins his service with Scott, paying a series of visits to the homes of the fallen soldiers’ survivors, their grim tidings are met with emotional devastation and collapse; belligerent anger; pained, paralyzed incomprehension; and, in one instance, the calm acceptance of a new widow with a young son who unexpectedly expresses solicitude for the men’s difficult position. And visit by visit, Montgomery’s distress grows as his composure is battered.

But this film doesn’t progress in a methodical dramatic arc toward some tension-releasing denouement. It’s cooler, more carefully observant than that. It has obvious sympathetic respect for its two messengers, and for the unfortunate bereaved recipients of the news they must deliver, but The Messenger doesn’t rely on carefully patterned dramatics. The jarring power of its scenes doesn’t lead to a major cathartic resolution for us or the characters.

The scenes of Scott and Montgomery’s downtime at first obliquely then more straightforwardly portray them trying to cope with their own sorrows and demons. An implicit theme of the film is the personal damage, often unacknowledged, that burdens the warriors who return from our battle lines. This is most explicit in a scene where Montgomery briefly tries to befriend a soldier in a bar who’s just finished telling an ostensibly amusing anecdote from his service in Iraq, but who, Montgomery perceives, is slipping toward a crackup. In a loose sense, The Messenger is a kind of companion to Kathryn Bigelow’s powerful film from earlier this year, The Hurt Locker.

Scott and Montgomery start their service together in a tense, unequal relationship, but like men in battle they’re drawn together under the pressure of their isolating work. The Messenger gradually becomes a kind of buddy movie. The men’s increasing intimacy is at once both a little facile and persuasive, particularly as portrayed by Foster and Harrelson. Foster (3:10 from Yuma, TV’s Six Feet Under), his dark eyes sometimes locked in a penetrating gaze, compellingly convey a wary reflectiveness, which doesn’t seem quite compatible with his heralded war experience. Foster suggests this disjunction of public and private meaning with a seeming minimum of effort.

Harrelson gives what may be his finest performance in a long career. Scott’s breezy, vulgarly cynical off-duty charm is revealed as concealing a sense of bitter resentment. Samantha Morton, as the under-control but conflict-ridden widow whom Montgomery gets to know, is quietly convincing. Oren Moverman, the Israeli-born debuting director who co-wrote The Messenger, also accomplishes a lot with an impressive economy of technique. Often operating with one handheld camera, he sometimes brings us in close to intense scenes and in others lets us witness less overtly stressful action from a distance. There’s one partial lapse when he has the men crash an engagement party for Montgomery’s former girlfriend and he goes for too big an effect. The scene may be misconceived.

At the end, Moverman finally introduces a couple notes of possible catharsis and hope that may be welcome. But even though it never goes anywhere near a war zone, The Messenger is one of the most harrowing war films of recent years.

Watch the trailer for The Messenger

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