The first image of this film is tears running down the face of Will Montgomery, but they are not real tears–Montgomery, stateside after being wounded in Iraq, has an eye injury, and he is using drops in one eye, as otherwise it gets dried out. So, we might be led to believe, he can not cry, which makes him an ideal candidate for his next assignment–casualty notification, the “angel of death” duty that requires him to notify next of kin that a soldier has been killed in action.
This is the set-up for the fine, gritty drama The Messenger, directed by Oren Moverman, and written by Moverman and Alessandro Camon. Their script has been Oscar-nominated, and deservedly so, as though it is as conventional as anything from a Robert McKee seminar, it also has ringingly authentic moments of pathos, and is exquisitely acted by a trio of leads.
Montgomery is played by the fine Ben Foster, who objects to his assignment. He has only three months to go in his enlistment, and is paired with Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), an on-the-wagon alcoholic who has the drill down pat. He lays out the rules to Foster, and as he lists each one those of us who have seen more than a handful of movies knows that each of these rules will be broken (particularly one that stipulates that the NOK–next of kin–must not be physically touched), and eventually Foster will teach Harrelson a thing or two, but if the conventions are hoary the ride is moving.
As the duo make their morbid rounds they encounter different types of reactions. A father, played memorably by Steve Buscemi, lashes out, while a soft-spoken woman, Samantha Morton, is almost apologetic, and understands how difficult their job is. Foster, intrigued by and attracted to Morton, starts hanging around her, and I initially objected to this course of events as it seemed achingly contrived. However the relationship doesn’t go where I thought it would, and Morton is so good as a woman who now mourns the death of an unhappy marriage that I changed my mind. Morton, it seems to me, should have received an Oscar nomination–I would vote for her over Mo’Nique. My only complaint is that she was so soft-spoken I missed some of her lines, but that’s probably due to my hearing and not her performance.
Harrelson did receive a nomination, and it’s easy to see why, as he is the juice of this story. His character is one of those guys who think they’ve seen it all, and instantly size people up, finishing their sentences for them. When we learn he’s in AA, but still hangs out in bars, a red flag pops up, but again the script doesn’t do the completely obvious thing. A scene in which he and Foster attend the engagement party of Foster’s old girlfriend is similar to the one in About Schmidt, when we cringe about the words of a toast, but as in that film we are let down easy.
The film is not political in any way–this could be about any war. Harrelson mentions that before Vietnam, families were notified by telegram (this recalls a terrific scene in We Were Soldiers that shows that the presence of a telegram delivery boy on military housing was a scary sight), and it’s fascinating to see how this detail works. Though it is not a combat assignment, the constant interaction with, and needing to be stoic in the presence of, grief must be psychologically battering.