Films about the folly of the Iraq War have been such box-office poison that it’s tempting to automatically upgrade any film that shows the toll this pointless, seemingly endless conflict for what it is – as a waste of life and a burden on survivors – just for daring to tell the truth.
Not that it would make a difference. With the exception of this year’s “The Hurt Locker,” which had to go out of its way not to seem like a movie about Iraq, virtually every film about Iraq – good, bad, fiction and documentary – has died a miserable death in theaters. I tend to think it has less to do the movies’ flaws or merits and more to do with a national sense of shame and denial – at allowing ourselves to be suckered by George W. Bush and his ruthless shills into supporting the quagmire/fiasco.
It will be too bad if that same fate awaits Oren Moverman’s “The Messenger,” as powerful and restrained a drama as you could wish for. Iraq is a presence but it’s never shown. Indeed, this is a drama that could have used any war as its context and made the same point: that all war ends tragically for too many, no matter what the objective or outcome.
Ben Foster plays Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery, decorated and shipped home after being wounded in Iraq. Assigned to the motor pool, he also has drawn a special duty: as a casualty notification officer, tasked with informing the next-of-kin of soldiers who have been killed in action.
His new partner is the feisty Capt. Tony Stony (Woody Harrelson), a veteran of the detail who quickly briefs Will on the job. They have to get to the family as quickly as possible, so the family won’t hear about it from the media or someone else. They cannot engage emotionally with those they are notifying. They don’t hug or otherwise touch them. And they don’t react if they are touched. Get in, do the job with honor, get out. Follow the script.
The job, however, is as emotionally draining in its way as combat. Given the opportunity, the people to whom they deliver this grim news would gladly kill these messengers, if it meant bringing their loved one back. Or if it could muffle the sudden searing pain they are feeling, by projecting it on to someone else.
Will is also dealing with his own issues. Aside from the lingering trauma of combat, he returns to find his former girlfriend (Jena Malone) has dumped him to jump into a secure marriage (though she shows up to give him a welcome home in bed before telling him). Alone and lonely, Will lives in a barely furnished apartment, immersing himself in throbbing metal music to block out the world.
But he finds himself strangely drawn to a new widow to whom he delivers bad news, who has the most subdued reaction of any of his missions. Olivia (Samantha Morton) seems to take the news in stride, as if her husband’s deployment had been a coin toss – and she knew that this loss was a potentially inevitable outcome for which she’d already steeled herself.
His fascination with her leads to a chaste but desire-filled friendship – and one of the film’s tensest, most intense scenes. In essence, it’s nothing more than the two of them dancing alone in her kitchen, which morphs into a hug and a wordless encounter that lasts nine minutes but speak volumes through the performances of Morton and Foster.
Foster has made a career of playing explosive characters with short fuses and violent tendencies, accented by a baby face and chilling eyes. Here, however, he captures the interior struggle of a conflicted warrior who keeps it all in, instead of letting it out.
Morton gives her character a sense of sad resignation that seems to actively guard against hope. And Harrelson finds much heart in the character of the recovering alcoholic and career military man, who embraces his new partner as a brother of the spirit and the struggle.
“The Messenger” is a film of both great sadness and great redemption, filled with heart-breaking moments played by a who’s who of character actors. It is a stunning film about respecting the sacrifice of the soldier – including the ones whose souls, rather than their bodies, are on the line everyday.