“The Messenger” is evenhanded to a fault, stressing realism over propaganda while staring at the consequences of combat through the eyes of two soldiers (Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson) assigned to the Army Casualty Notification Service, who have the unenviable task of informing the next of kin when a loved one has paid the ultimate price.
I’m not being facetious when I say it’s your patriotic duty to see “The Messenger,” one of the most moving tributes I can think of to the parents, children and spouses who have lost a loved one to war.
Unlike most films inspired by the twin conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, it puts a human face on the notion that those are real people, with real lives, fighting and dying on our behalf in strange lands for a government that seems to place a higher value on the protection of oil than it does the members of its military.
Make no mistake, though: This is not – and I repeat – not, an anti-war picture. Nor is it one with a decidedly leftist slant.
Our guides are Woody Harrelson’s appropriately named Stone and Ben Foster’s newbie, Will Montgomery, a decorated hero assigned to the Army Casualty Notification service after being wounded in Iraq.
Like us, Will knows nothing about the procedures and protocol involved with knocking on the doors of complete strangers and delivering the grimmest news they will ever hear.
And he is about to learn, as are we, that it’s a pretty cold business in which the messengers are not allowed to comfort or touch the next of kin; and only the words “killed” or “died” can be used to avoid the vagaries of terms like “passed,” “gone” or “didn’t make it.”
At first, it seems almost inhuman, if not indignant. But by the time this well-rendered, beautifully acted drama runs its course, you find yourself filled with deep admiration for the bravery and discipline required of a job in which you must be perfect every time you ring the doorbell. And be ready for anything, because you never know if the news will be greeted with calm resignation or a violent outburst.
Harrelson and Foster allow you to feel every heart-tugging moment vicariously through haunting, Oscar-caliber performances that tap into the guilt, the pain and, yes, the pride in doing a tough job well.
Nor do they shy away from the darker elements of characters that come preloaded with personal demons exacerbated by the toll their grim work takes.
Most absorbing is the level of realism contained in a script by first-time director Oren Moverman, who draws liberally on his experiences as a member of the Israeli army.
Like Oliver Stone, another director hardened by war, Moverman knows firsthand how soldiers think, react and attempt to justify a job that seems to buck every religious and moral truth.
His only false step is to involve Will, a guy struggling with the hands-off approach to notification, in a romance with a war widow (Samantha Morton) and her young, mixed-race son.
Yet, even though their relationship feels contrived, the feelings and emotions they express always seem genuine, particularly in a long, well-acted scene in which they confront the real reasons behind their mutual attraction.
Far more believable is Will’s relationship with his high school sweetheart (Jena Malone, all grown up), who he unselfishly set free when he shipped off to Iraq, but now wants, but can’t have back because she’s about to marry another.
Their scenes are wrenching and, on occasion, funny, as is the rest of the film, which draws much of its élan from the budding bromance between Will and his occasionally psychotic mentor, Stone. It’s the type of role Harrelson has played a dozen times before but seldom with this much power – and humor.
The film, though, belongs to Foster. Best known for his portrayal of Russell Crowe’s loyal and deranged partner in “3:10 to Yuma,” Foster finally finds a part that allows him to be at his most human and most feral.
He creates a constant air of suppressed volatility that has you on the edge of your seat, as you anticipate Will losing it at just about any minute. And when he does, watch out. But the moments that stand out are when he goes against expectations by expressing empathy and emotion for both his partner and the people whose hearts he is about to break.
It’s a scintillating turn in a harrowing, but ultimately rewarding picture that refreshingly has no agenda, plays no sides and offers no solutions; just devastating truths about the collateral damage a soldier’s death leaves behind.
THE MESSENGER (R for language and some sexual content/nudity.) Cast includes Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone and Steve Buschemi. At Kendall Square, Cambridge. 3 stars out of 4.
Contact Patriot Ledger writer Al Alexander at firstname.lastname@example.org.