Oren Moverman’s The Messenger finally makes it to town this week. Overshadowed by Kathryn Bigelow’s war drama The Hurt Locker, this lower-key home-front story has much going for it—not the least of which are the performances of its three leads: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson and Samantha Morton. I don’t know if it’s despite or because The Messenger resorts to a more formulaic approach in many respects—making it all the more startling when it goes off into unexpected territory—but I found the film more personally effective than Bigelow’s estimable, but overrated, Hurt Locker.
Ben Foster (3:10 to Yuma) stars as Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, a decorated war hero with a damaged leg and eye who is shipped stateside and given the less than glorious reward of working out his remaining three months in the service by being assigned the task of visiting families to inform them that their son or daughter or husband or wife has been killed in action. It’s a grim job. If you have a close relative in the armed forces and see a couple of soldiers walking up to your front door, you likely have a pretty good idea of the news they’re bringing.
The only question for the message bearers is how the relatives will act, and that’s why there are very strict guidelines for just how this job is carried out. To this end, Will has been given a seasoned partner, Capt. Tony Stone (Harrelson). Stone is a by-the-book no-nonsense kind of guy who wants to keep everything at arm’s length. The problem is that he has issues of his own. He’s a three-years-sober alcoholic with a chip on his shoulder for not being a war hero, a desire to envision himself as shallow and callous, and a burning, unspoken need for a friend.
Will, of course, is the immediate candidate for the friend position, and it isn’t as if Will himself couldn’t use a friend, especially since his fiancée, Kelly (Jena Malone, The Ruins), has moved on in his absence. Yes, this does push the film into the realm of the odd-couple buddy movie, but apart from an extended sequence late in the film that threatens to derail the story entirely, it’s handled with a believable humanity that raises it considerably above its formula underpinnings.
By virtue of its nature, the film is episodic, offering in most cases, the merest vignettes of the pair’s encounters with the relatives they visit in the course of their duties. The only tip-off we have that two of these encounters will turn into more rests in the fact that the movies have trained us to expect more when we find ourselves in the company of name actors. As a result, it’s no big surprise when there’s more than the single meeting with Steve Buscemi and Samantha Morton.
But even this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially in the case of Morton as the widow who plays against expectations at every turn. In fact, she may be the most intriguing character in the film. Her initial response to receiving the news of her husband’s death—quiet acceptance that includes her acknowledging that this job must be very hard on the messengers—is unlike that of anyone else in the film. Her outburst at a pair of army recruiters in a shopping mall is also different from anything else in the movie. It’s the only time that anyone expresses actual anti-war sentiment—and it comes from the most unlikely source. What makes this—and her tentative stab at some kind of relationship with Will—work is that it always skirts the expected, imbuing the film with a less predictable element than most of the scripting allows.
In the end The Messengers falls just a little outside the realm of greatness, but it has enough of the elements of greatness in it that it transcends most of its limitations to become the kind of drama that lingers in the mind in a way that slicker, more accomplished works very often do not. Rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity.