Foster terrific as conflicted war vet in spare, moving ‘Messenger’
There are many kinds of collateral damage in warfare. The character played with such stoic complexity by Ben Foster in The Messenger is poised to experience, or at least witness most of them. As the title character in Oren Moverman’s rigorous and insightful debut feature, Foster plays a wounded Iraq War vet serving out the rest of his tour back in the States, notifying loved ones that their sons, husbands and fathers have been killed in action.
Scripted by Moverman and Alessandro Camon, The Messenger honors the sacrifices of servicemen and women and their families, while at the same time exposing the true cost of war, and the bitter reality beneath the patriotic hype and hoopla. It also provides a sensational vehicle for Foster, after years as a young male ingénue and second lead, who recently wowed audiences as a psycho villain in 3:10 To Yuma. With the graceful subtlety of his performance in The Messenger, Foster proves he has the presence to command the screen.
Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Foster), a decorated Iraqi war hero, has come home with a bad eye, a bum leg, and three months left to serve. He and his brisk, chirpy childhood sweetheart (Jena Malone) no longer have much to say to each other; in fact, she’s moved on to a more reliable fiancé. Then the brass assigns a reluctant Will to the casualty notification unit, the most onerous job in the Army, and teams him up with his new commanding officer, Gulf War veteran Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson). It’s a plummy role for Harrelson, who plays it with panache, the tough guy and gung-ho company man, precariously on the wagon, who drills the rookie in the details of procedure. (Like “no touching the NOK”— Next of Kin—and “no hugging.”)
The job is more grueling than anything Will could have imagined. The messengers not only have to cope with the shrieking despair of the NOKs, but sometimes their violent rages, as well.
(“Coward!” spits the great Steve Buscemi, in a cameo as newly bereaved father, at Will. “Why didn’t you die?”) Stone salves his pain over the job with an ongoing scenario about faithless widows who already have “a new man on the clothesline,” and cynicism. (Noting that people always act surprised when soldiers die, Stone cracks, “What’d they think it was gonna be like, Fear Factor?”). But Will’s response is to man up for the task, and bear the unbearable.
Both men are caught off guard one day by Olivia (Samantha Morton), a new widow they’ve come to notify, who reacts with a show of fragile poise and unexpected empathy. (“This can’t be easy for you,” she acknowledges.) Will, who has never had much of a home life, is drawn to Olivia; he admires the strength with which she handles her young son, and the spirit with which he sees her chase off a pair of Army recruiters who have cornered a couple of teenagers at the mall. Although it defies procedure, he keeps circling back into her orbit.
The ever-shifting dynamic between brash Stone and the more reserved Will keeps things moving. When Stone declares, “They should show every soldier’s funeral on TV”—to dramatize the magnitude of the waste—who could disagree? But Moverman occasionally allows Harrelson’s glib, profane grandstanding to overwhelm his otherwise spare and trenchant story. (A pointless, alcohol-fueled excursion to a lake, and the boorish crashing of Will’s ex’s wedding party belong in a movie with far less integrity.)
Much more credible is the hesitant relationship between Will and Olivia as each tries to understand what they want and need from each other and themselves. But in the end, the film belongs to Foster, whose late-inning revelation as to why Will thinks he’s the right man for his harrowing job—and how it might redeem him—give the story its quiet, resonant power.
THE MESSENGER ★★★ With Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, and Samantha Morton. Written by Oren Moverman and Alessandro Camon. Directed by Oren Moverman. An Oscilloscope release. Rated R. 112 minutes.