The Messenger (3 1/2 Stars)

Movie Review by Michael Phillips


Ben Foster & Woody Harrelson  in the movie The Messenger

Some jobs are dirtier than others, and after seeing director and co-writer Oren Moverman's beautifully acted new film "The Messenger," you'll be better acquainted with some of the most grueling work a human being can be called upon to perform.

A decorated U.S. Army soldier, Staff Sgt. Montgomery (Ben Foster) has returned to America from Iraq. He is in rough shape, and adding some challenging adversity to post-traumatic stress disorder, he is assigned to the Casualty Notification program. His mentor and fellow officer, Capt. Stone (Woody Harrelson), is a tricky combination of by-the-book stickler and loose cannon (though the script sometimes seems unsure of this mixture). Montgomery and Stone are the ones delivering news of a fallen soldier's death to parents, wives, children. There are various rules for the officers charged with this grim duty, among them "Do not touch the NOK," as Stone says, meaning the next of kin.

"The Messenger" is not itself grueling, which is practically a miracle. Rather, this pungent little chamber piece offers a full yet delicate range of emotions, and it humanizes its characters so that polemics are left in the background. It takes place in the present, but the conflict claiming military lives could be any conflict, not just America's involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan. The movie has little to do, in any respect, with a nerve-racker like "The Hurt Locker" except this: Both are apolitical without being soft-headed. And both honor the warrior without lionizing the war.

Montgomery's thin-ice relationship with a war widow provides the conflict in "The Messenger," and while lesser actors might struggle with some of the more conventional developments, Israeli-born Moverman has gotten lucky indeed with his ensemble. Foster plays Montgomery, and he embodies everything the role needs: a plausibly tough war hero, a man struggling to find his place back on American soil, a volatile, combustible soul, a dimensional dramatic creation. Foster can be pretty showy as a performer (his turn in the "3:10 to Yuma" remake was both impressive and road-hoggy), but he's lower-key and spot-on here.

With Harrelson's performance as Stone, we can now safely say that he has always been a valuable and versatile presence, even in junk, right from the beginning of his screen career. He seems visibly relieved to be working on a strong, honest script. Like Foster, he can be accused of outsize effects, but in "The Messenger" he's solid as a rock and very moving. Samantha Morton is warm and true as Olivia, the widow who wonders if this unsteady young man, Stone, is out to "take advantage of (her) grief." The relationship has a connect-the-dots air, but the details, the interactions, go a long way toward fleshing things out.

Moverman and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski shoot the movie like a '70s artifact, with slow zooms and an unforced feeling of ambience. The results make up for any number of other, lesser, clunkier movies relating to the war in Iraq. Then again, "The Messenger" is worth seeking out for the simple reason that it's not Iraq-specific. Rather, it's quietly universal.

An American soldier struggles with an ethical dilemma when he becomes involved with a widow of a fallen officer.

MPAA rating: R (for language and some sexual content/nudity).

Running time: 1:45.

Cast: Ben Foster (Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery); Woody Harrelson (Capt. Tony Stone); Samantha Morton (Olivia Pitterson); Jena Malone (Kelly); Steve Buscemi (Dale Martin).

Credits: Directed by Oren Moverman; written by Alessandro Camon and Moverman; produced by Mark Gordon, Lawrence Inglee and Zach Miller. An Oscilloscope Laboratories release.


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