With so many films about the Iraq war come and gone, the arrival of “The Messenger,” a becalmed, observant drama about Casualty Notification Officers (those whose work it is to stoically inform next of kin of their loss) seems oddly appropriate, especially as it’s released at that moment when the public’s attention is being wrenched towards Afghanistan and the ongoing situation in Iraq drifts ever further from consciousness. Oren Moverman’s directorial debut is structured around absences — those who’ve died, actions taken elsewhere. His protagonists are largely obsessed with aftermaths, even as they works towards becoming actors in their own lives. From our vantage point in 2009, the film feels a period piece, some kind of elegy for those hazy pre-surge summers of 2005 or 2006 when casualties were at their height and the war promised to loom large over upcoming elections. Largely stripped of politics, aside from a generalized “war damages” sensibility, “The Messenger” is not here to serve as nagging Iraq War reminder. In fact, it’s in many ways not quite the movie you’d expect.
We first meet Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) in gruesome close-up, harsh light shining down from above as his wounded left eye tentatively accepts drop medication. His damaged eye can’t cry, but thankfully Moverman and co-screenwriter Alessandro Carmon don’t see the need to overwork this metaphor into obviousness. Montgomery’s recently home from Iraq, and after a quick tumble with Kelly (Jena Malone), the pair go out to dinner where she informs him that she’s likely to marry another man. “The Messenger” proves here, early on, that it wants to be a home for subtle dramatics. Montgomery reacts little to this news, puts Kelly in a cab with a kiss and a thanks for the fuck, pounds the cab roof a few times to signal the driver and then walks away. Less sure authorial hands would have left tables overturned and cheeks stained with tears in their wake.
Montgomery’s adjustment into life back at New Jersey’s Ft. Dix is interrupted by an unlikely assignment, a pairing with Capt. Tony Stone (a bald, mustachioed Woody Harrelson) on Casualty Notification duty. Will’s surprise signals the start of a new narrative thread — “The Messenger” turns out to be a movie about a job, in which the younger soldier is indoctrinated into a new routine by the gruff, wild-eyed veteran of the process and stumbles his way through his first awkward forays before settling into his new role. Given that we’re dealing with soldiers, it’s also a war movie — Stone speaks in terms of missions, objectives and guidelines. When the two kick back at the local bar after “work” their talk is often darker than the average bar banter. The conflict in Iraq is never witnessed, even obligatory flashbacks are eschewed, but always felt.
Moverman’s uncluttered direction oscillates between smoothly gliding camera for sequences advancing character and narrative and handheld verite styling for Stone and Montgomery’s house calls. It’s in these less scripted moments that “The Messenger” works best, and the film might have been even more successfully structured as merely a succession of such encounters for all the variety of situation and reaction presented (a father learning of his daughter’s quickie secret marriage to man he doesn’t like and the death of his son-in-law in one fell swoop is especially moving). In each, Montgomery and Stone’s reactions shift, and as much as they try to stick with the assigned script, circumstances and their own human empathy get in the way (watch especially for twitches of the soliders’ lips and eyes). This leads Montgomery to tentatively romance a newly informed widow (Samantha Morton), a subplot with all the potential for wide- scale movie disruption that’s thankfully downplayed.
Late in the film, Will takes the lead and, in the process of informing another family of their son’s death, offers empathy via a simple touch; Stone’s resultant rage takes us back the movie’s most important relationship, the one that’s been slowly developing and deepening all along. Aside from some third-act hysterics that threaten to overturn the delicacy of the film’s tone, “The Messenger” sticks closely to its intentionally circumscribed path. It is, in the end, a buddy picture with two men damaged and recuperating from wildly differing troubles. “The Messenger” may well be a film that’s best defined by the things that it doesn’t do wrong, rather than the things it does right, but lest that sound like backhanded praise, consider briefly how many films out there are constructed entirely of obvious wrongs.
[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]