The Messenger is a hard movie. It demands its viewers' service in the same way that the army requires further duty of Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) after he is wounded in Iraq and returned home. The film opens with scenes of Montgomery struggling to regain focus in his sight: His wound is located in his eye. So begins a film about learning to see and to witness the reality of death—both for Montgomery and for the viewer.
Having seen and triggered death in battle, Montgomery becomes a "messenger" in America when he is transferred into the Army's Casualty Notification service, that branch of the military charged with the brutal work of notifying families when a soldier is killed.
The film unflinchingly and repetitively moves through six "notification calls" where the pitiless bureaucratic protocols of "engagement" with relatives of dead soldiers—the next of kin—tax the viewer as much as they do Montgomery and his superior and partner, Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson).
The job of casualty notification, it's clear, is hard work: unpredictable, emotionally messy, and almost wholly without clean comfort or satisfaction. But the movie itself is complicated in much the same way. It's not a simple parable about the wages of war in which the goal is to play with audience sentiment. Instead, the film attempts something more difficult as it brings together a number of narratives that intersect at the crossroads of death in wartime. It's at once an exploration of the complex relationship between military men as they encounter and come to know death and a meditation on the sense of homelessness war often creates for soldiers. It's also a study of how difficult it can often be after military service to learn to be human again. The heart of the film lies in those aspects of the story, but The Messenger also opens up other fronts, making forays into romance (Montgomery is tenuously involved with two women) and addiction. All together, The Messenger pursues a busy theater of operations. It may, ultimately, be too much grunt work for the film and the viewer to take on.
The Messenger's actors provide the main strength of the film. Between Harrelson and Foster, director Oren Moverman is able to establish a morally and emotionally compelling drama on the back of what is a species of the buddy film. Harrelson is epic in his role—extravagant, larger-than-life, able to perfectly portray a braying, wounded, foolish heroism.
Foster, though, is more than a match for Harrelson's monster performance. He's on a slow burn. Shuttering his character behind sunglasses early in the film, Foster takes his time working his way into Montgomery, using measured timing to reveal what his character feels and what he may be able to feel once again. For instance, during one of his calls, Montgomery is told by the father of a dead soldier to look at a tree: "I said look at that fucking tree; it's the same age as my son." Foster registers the reality of loss using only his eyes, which soften and strain as they begin to see what the bark and leaves mean in the life of the family. It's a subtle, restrained and psychologically acute performance.
On separate paths, Montgomery and Stone develop a relationship that reveals the full spectrum of costs associated with military service in wartime. They are initially at odds with one another. Stone is a twitchy, tweaking, wreck of a man who is an only barely sober, straight-up skirt chaser. Montgomery, on the other hand, is a species of contained explosion whose uncanny physical and verbal quiet masks an internal chaos that is best signaled by the heavy metal music that accompanies him throughout the film (Clutch's "Profits of Doom").
The song "Home on the Range" is used as a way to indicate the men's growing sense of a mutually shared estrangement. Together they sing the song at a wedding party that they do more than crash. In fact, they invade it, half-drunk and bloodied from an encounter with teenage boys. But the tune also shows up in other odd corners of the film. "Home on the Range," the quintessential song of the American wanderer who can't find a place to rest, becomes their anthem. They wander between home and the range—the "out there" of war.
Moverman chooses, unfortunately, to allow other stories to interfere with the central concern of The Messenger. The tentative and unrealized romance between Montgomery and a woman whom the two men visit in their rounds is both too easy and too complex for the screen time allotted to it. It's as if the conventional male-female story is loosely woven into the plot like a fallback strategy: put there in order to allow for the potential reintegration and easy resolution a romance could provide. The connection between Montgomery and Olivia Patterson, played with a graceful economy by Samantha Morton, also seems unnecessary and, finally, distracting.
The thing is, Montgomery's routes back home and to his humanness are already mapped out in his interactions with the families of the dead and in his developing relationship with Stone, his fellow dark angel of next of kin notification.
The Messenger opens at the Wilma Theatre Friday, Feb. 5.