*The Messenger (R)
Yes, The Messenger is another war movie. And even in a year in which films such as The Hurt Locker showed us that the subject can be presented in a fresh, engrossing manner, many ticket buyers have made their battle fatigue clear, apparently too worn down by the reality of the world's conflicts to want to sit through fictionalized versions on a Saturday night.
The fact that co-writer Oren Moverman's directorial debut is not about battle, but the ramifications of it, might be more persuasive for reluctant moviegoers. Like The Hurt Locker, The Messenger skips politics to instead focus on soldiers, particularly those who have died and two who are tasked with notifying their next of kin.
Ben Foster, finally securing a good role in a good film, plays Will Montgomery, a staff sergeant recently returned from Iraq who is assigned to the Army's casualty notification team for the final three months of his enlistment. He's paired with Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a soldier who's been doing the gig for a while and is simultaneously as hardened and traumatized by the experience as anyone on the front lines.
Together, they mechanically deliver bad news to hysterical families, trying their best to keep a straight face and stick to the script, as well as adhering to rules such as never touching the aggrieved in an attempt to console. They both suffer from insomnia. And though Tony, thrice married, talks tough about not getting too deeply involved with women, Will's still-broken heart over a childhood sweetheart (Jena Malone) who didn't wait for him leads him into an extremely tentative involvement with Olivia (Samantha Morton), a fresh widow he meets on the job.
When Will's superior gives him the assignment, he stresses that the job is "about character." The same can be said about The Messenger itself. The film's slight story is secondary to the quick bond that develops between Will and Tony, the kind that's clearly exclusive to soldiers with shared experiences but is mesmerizing to viewers. Harrelson and Foster have terrific chemistry as fast, if gruff, friends.
Harrelson's Tony is particularly engaging, with a dark humor beneath his steely sense of duty. Instructing Will, he says, "Sometimes you get one of those godawful chirpin' doorbells, some sing-songy shit, throws you right off your game — 'Yankee doodle went to town riding on a pony / And sorry you're husband's dead' doesn't flow, so I like to knock." Near the end of the film, Will launches into a story about a traumatic experience in the field, and Tony stares at him with attention so rapt you get the feeling it's the closest either man ever gets to therapy.
And you don't have to have any military experience to relate to the script's running theme of grief. The interactions between the men and the families of the fallen are gut-wrenching, with two particularly memorable moments involving Steve Buscemi as a father who reacts with anger and, later, humility.
If there's any message Moverman wanted to convey in his film, he has Tony deliver it best, if bitterly: "Soldiers go to war, everyone waves flags and applauds ... and then bullets fly and soldiers die and it's such a shock." Personal tragedies trump bitterness here, though, making The Messenger a universally relatable drama instead of just another story about Iraq.