The Messenger (R) (112 min.) — Duty to his country just got stickier for Army Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), who already survived a tour of combat in Iraq. Now he's assigned to the casualty notification program, informing families that loved ones have been killed in action.
A few terse, rehearsed words of the Army's regret and these assignments are officially completed, but not really. The anguish that Will confronts on each doorstep is contagious and chronic. Except for one widow taking the news much more calmly than usual. Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton) will challenge Will's impersonal protocol, making him care more than regulations allow.
That doesn't sit well with Will's mentor, Capt. Tony Stone (Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson), who carries his sense of detachment like a cast-iron shield, demanding the same from Will. Tony has enough worries with his own demons, dogged by alcoholism and inadequacy since, unlike Will, he never saw combat. These are severely damaged men for different reasons, with clashing means of dealing with it.
Oren Moverman's Oscar-nominated screenplay reminds me of 1973's The Last Detail, with its road movie structure and doubts about the military rule book. Like that film, The Messenger contains a measure of raucous, off-duty humor — a brawl here, a sexual encounter there — to show Will and Tony aren't entirely morose. They're just blowing off steam between assignments, and we can't blame them.
Moverman's film is also impressively apolitical, never questioning whether those dead soldiers should have been in battle. The Messenger is aware of death's inevitability in wartime and doesn't try smoothing over the losses with patriotic or pacifist platitudes, or hollow advice on coping. It simply reveals an aspect of wartime that's usually unnoticed except by the survivors left behind.
Foster's tightly coiled portrayal was unjustly overlooked during awards season and deserved closer inspection. Harrelson is terrific in his unlikely role of spit-shined soldier with percolating weaknesses. They're a riveting pair, impressively improvising the notification scenes. Except for Olivia, Moverman reportedly never told Foster and Harrelson who waited behind those doors, or how those actors would respond. The results — especially from indie icon Steve Buscemi — are electrifying, in one of 2009's best films.
The Messenger opens Friday at AMC Veterans 24 in Tampa. A
Steve Persall, Times film critic