"The Messenger," filmed in and around Fort Dix, N.J., is about two Army officers assigned to work for the Casualty Notification Office – an all-too-timely subject. The two men, Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) and his subordinate, Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), appear at the doorsteps of next of kin, recite a scripted message from the secretary of the Army, and break the bad news before beating a relatively hasty retreat. Usually in the movies this home front process is dramatized from the point of view of the bereaved. Here we see it from the other side. There can't be many worse jobs.
Stone, a recovering alcoholic, is a lifer in the military who talks big about his professed wartime exploits. He may be a hell-raiser off the job but he takes his notification work with deadly seriousness. He's honed the protocol. (On his first assignment with Montgomery, he runs down a checklist of no-nos and tells him to "lose the shades.") Montgomery, wounded and decorated, has recently returned from Iraq to find his ex-girlfriend engaged to be married. Playing out the final months of his service, he's initially unprepared for the onrush of grief and anger he encounters.
He makes what is, for Stone, a basic mistake: He shows sympathy for the bereaved. The deaths he was trying to put behind him in Iraq come crowding in again. Montgomery thinks that by being a good guy he will ease the pain of these people (as well as his own), but he miscalculates. One after the other, we witness the bereaved, and it's almost unbearable to watch. It's like witnessing some gruesome reality TV show.
The suspicion, at first, is that Stone has less empathy in his emotional arsenal than Montgomery. But there is a scene early on when Montgomery tries to calm down the father (Steve Buscemi) of a fallen soldier and, for his troubles, gets physically attacked. In moments like these, Stone's ramrod demeanor seems not only proper but prudent. He doesn't let these situations get to him because he's already been gotten to. Montgomery is still caught up in the war.
"The Messenger," which director Oren Moverman co-wrote with Alessandro Camon, captures the fear factor in the lives of these men without turning them into the usual home front head cases. Most movies about returning Iraq veterans – "In the Valley of Elah," "Stop-Loss" especially – play up an enraged hopelessness. Moverman keeps things simpler; his film doesn't even take a political attitude toward the war itself. The film's big drawback is that, instead of focusing on what the mission does to the two men, it veers into another, lesser byway. Montgomery falls for a newly widowed Army wife (Samantha Morton). The creepiness of his pursuit is never adequately dealt with. Although Morton is quite fine in a tricky role, the relationship seems like a sop to the audience – a way of inserting romance into a movie that is anything but romantic.
Moverman was faced with an insoluble dilemma: If his movie was fundamentally about the notification process, it would be impossible to sit through for two hours. And so, to break things up, he not only provides a (sort of) love story but also drags out the relationship between Montgomery and Stone until it devolves into standard-issue buddy-buddyism. The bonding rituals pile up – the men rumble with townies, crash the ex-girlfriend's wedding, and so on. It's difficult to escape the feeling that, by the end, Moverman has let a potentially great film slip through his fingers.
Still, what's terrific about "The Messenger" – its first half, its lead performances – is not easily dispelled. It brings home the horror of the Iraq war in a way that much of our TV news media have failed to do. Grade: B+ (Rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity.)