When I got home after seeing this movie, my aunt asked me what it was about. I briefly explained story details, a young Iraq War hero, who with a little time left to serve, is enlisted in the Casualty Notification Office, meaning he’s the poor son of a bitch who has to go to family’s homes and tell them that their 18-year-old son (or daughter) just got killed.
“Really?”, my aunt asked, “they made a story around that?” Yes, I told her, that’s exactly what talented, first-time director Oren Moverman has done; he’s made a story. The Messenger isn’t bogged down by a gimmicky plot, there’s no silly motivation, it’s just two guys doing a very tough job that they both hate.
Ben Foster, who’s had throwaway roles in X-Men 3 and Alpha Dog, plays Staff Sergeant Montgomery like a quiet storm, ready to stir up trouble at any minute. With a bum eye, limping leg, and far-off girlfriend, Montgomery is a man looking for what? Purpose? Acceptance? Solitude? Probably a bit of all three. Foster is subtly striking, internally combustible.
If Foster is the storm, then Woody Harrelson, as the CNO veteran, is the hurricane. Harrelson’s Captain Stone, is a man so far removed from his inner turmoil, that it’s actually uncomfortable to watch at times (which is very, very good acting). Harrelson has always impressed. From The People vs. Larry Flynt to No Country for Old Men. But watch him in the scene when Stone and Montgomery argue outside a convenience store. At one point, Harrelson pushes Foster’s head into a wood railing. It's completely unexpected. And given Foster’s slightly bewildered reaction, I can only assume that Harrelson improvised that small bit of volcanic rage. Simply put: this is the best work Harrelson has ever done, watching his character progress throughout the film, as he becomes more at ease with his internal hell, is truly incredible. Expect a nomination.
The Messenger actually plays out as a successful study of the grieving process. There are a slew of notifications. Some end badly with screaming, some end worse with slapping, some family members deny their loss right away, others don’t seem the least bit swayed. How would you respond to such news? It’s a hard feat for actors to pull off. One father, played by the ever-incredible Steve Buscemi, completely embodies what it is to be overcome with instant fury. He takes the news fine at first, then erupts. Remarkably done.
Aside from the fine performances, of which there are several others, including an indelible Samantha Morton, the film holds up dutifully as an exercise in minimalism. There’s no fancy camera work, no popular music; the story is just… there. It’s one of the movies where you actually forget you’re watching a movie. And that’s what it’s all about. A-