‘The Messenger’

By Tony Macklin

“The Messenger” is a film about shock and healing. Forget awe. In a world that avoids the realities of war (the U.S. government didn’t allow photographs of coffins), “The Messenger” casts a flickering light on some of the human cost of war.

Fortunately “The Messenger” is not dogmatic; it is a human tale with human characters and human reactions.

“The Messenger” is the story of two members of the Army’s Casualty Notification Service whose charge it is to inform a family member whenever there is the death of a loved one in the military.

The notification — in person but not personal — brings forth myriad different reactions, from fury to repression to collapse. Despite their calculated remote delivery, how can the military informants stay unaffected?

“The Messenger” focuses on three main characters: two Army notifiers and the widow of a slain soldier. All are conflicted; all have to cope with psychological wounding.

Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is assigned to join Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) on the Army’s Notification detail. Still recovering from devastating injuries in Iraq, both physical and psychological, the unsettled Montgomery is serving out the end of his active service.

The movie begins with a shot of Montgomery with artificial tears in his damaged eye. It’s a telling symbol of things to come.

Stone takes Montgomery under his rigid wing. He gives him instruction about keeping distance from the bereaved. Just deliver the prepared statement and make no contact, physical or emotional, with the recipient of the awful news.

Stone has sealed himself off from any emotional connection. He delivers each notification each time with the same words in the same monotone. He seems composed and unflappable. But it appears his service may have taken its toll. Stone is a recovering alcoholic whose recovery is sporadic. He has been married three times, but now he lives alone. He is an uncommitted womanizer.

He and Montgomery live in a world where beepers alert them to the latest casualty, and Stone then uses succinct, pat jargon such as “nok,” instead of “next of kin.” It is a world that is rote and mechanical. Stone is reflexive not reflective.

But Montgomery is not as set in his ways. He’s still trying to cope with battlefield experiences and the fact that his former girlfriend is about to marry someone else. He punches the wall and plays loud music, but he’s mostly quiet. And he’s still open to experience.

Despite his mentor’s adamant advice, Montgomery makes emotional contact with some of the victims of their dire news. He becomes involved with a widow (Samantha Morton), whom he informs of her husband’s death. Her reaction is surprisingly calm, but there’s complexity behind it. She has a young son and diverse memories. As the relationships evolve, the two soldiers face their demons.

Ben Foster is credible and low-key as the tattooed, emotionally-scarred Montgomery. Foster played the vicious, brutal killer in “3:10 to Yuma.” In “The Messenger” he shows a much different sensibility as the sensitive Montgomery. Edward Norton or Ryan Gosling might have played Foster’s role in the past. Foster is their equal.

Woody Harrelson — mustachioed, gum-chewing or working a toothpick — is excellent as the cocky, authoritative Stone. He reveals the human being struggling to stay under Stone’s uniform.

Samantha Morton is warm and affecting as the conflicted widow. Steve Buscemi gives a powerful, raw performance as a father of one of the dead.

Director and writer Oren Moverman, in his first feature film — which he wrote with Alessandro Camon — creates a memorable experience of humans trying to cope with suffering.

An officer says to the reluctant Montgomery, “This job’s about character.” So is the film.

Tony Macklin, a former college English and film professor, is still foraging for truth in literature and film, in Arkansas, Las Vegas and beyond.

Categories: Entertainment