Simply put, The Messenger is about the soldiers whose job it is to notify next of kin when a member of the armed forces is killed in action. That sounds intriguing enough on the surface, but screenwriters Oren Moverman (who also makes his directing debut here) and Alessandro Camon manage to generate…
equal amounts of interest in the messengers and their recipients.
The film is a terrific vehicle for Ben Foster, an underappreciated talent who’s been doing excellent work since he was a teenager, in films like Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights. He is well cast as a decorated soldier who’s come back from Iraq with both physical and emotional problems to deal with. Assigned to the Casualty Notification Office for the last few months of his enlistment, he quickly learns the ropes from his superior officer, another damaged soul well played by Woody Harrelson. (It must be said that Harrelson has been going from strength to strength lately, tackling a variety of colorful and interesting characters.)
The Messenger is leisurely and episodic; it doesn’t build to an emotional crescendo as a mainstream Hollywood movie might, given the same raw material. It has more the feel of a slice of life than a conventional story. We share the men’s experiences as they deliver their bad news to a variety of people—grieving wives, mothers, and fathers (including Steve Buscemi in a moving cameo)—and Harrelson repeatedly counsels his younger colleague to keep his emotional distance. He ignores the advice and becomes involved with one particular young widow (Samantha Morton).
I don’t often have an opportunity to see a movie twice, but I screened this for my class at USC and found myself just as involved the second time as I was the first. The Messenger is a modest but thoroughly satisfying film.