Oren Moverman — a screewriter who penned Todd Haynes' ambitious Bob Dylan film I'm Not There and co-wrote Married Life with Memphis-bred filmmaker Ira Sachs — makes his directorial debut with The Messenger, a story of a decorated Iraq War soldier (Ben Foster) returning home after being injured in battle, only to be assigned to a two-man notification team, delivering the worst of all possible news to other soldiers' next of kin.
Though the U.S. first invaded Iraq in 2003, there hasn't been much in the way of successful narrative cinema made about the conflict, but that's changed in the past year, first with Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker and now with The Messenger.
Both films are relatively tightly focused and essentially about men performing difficult jobs. Where The Hurt Locker followed a small bomb unit through a linked series of missions, The Messenger follows its two-man team through a tough series of notifications.
"I've never received any grief counseling, let alone given it. I am not a religious man," Will Montgomery (Foster) protests when given his new assignment. "You are a model soldier. Hell, you're a goddamn hero," he's told.
Will is assigned to work with Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), an older man and veteran of the first Gulf War, who is self-conscious about having served in a less lengthy, less dangerous conflict.
One of The Messenger's strengths is the procedural detail it brings to the depiction of a terrible but necessary job: Will wears a beeper so he can be contacted whenever the need strikes; as Tony explains, the Army is "battling Fox, CNN, Drudge, a soldier with a cell phone" to break the news of combat deaths to family members. There are specific rules to be followed: Only deliver news to designated next of kin. Don't touch the person you're notifying unless they require medical attention. Stick to the script.
Much of film depicts these notifications in anguished but respectful snapshots: A mother screams and slaps Will. A father (Steve Buscemi) spits at him and rails against the Army. A wife and mother (Samantha Morton) thanks them, terse but tearful. The father of a young woman left behind morphs from anger over a forbidden marriage to quiet support. An older father crumples to the floor.
One of these moments builds to more, as Will — despite Tony's warnings — develops a relationship with the young mother. This plot detour is movie contrivance — putting together two survivors wounded by the war in different ways — but it's one the film incorporates with delicacy and effectiveness.
Though Moverman the director does a solid job here, The Messenger is a writing and especially acting showcase. Harrelson has never been better — shades of bluster, vulnerability, and principle forming a complex, memorable supporting character. Foster, so scrawny and squirrelly in early roles, such as his recurring character on HBO's Six Feet Under, really comes into his own here. A bulked-up Foster is strong and believable but thankfully restrained, his moving, nuanced performance matching the tone of this sleeper of a film.