I'm fully aware of the fallacies of evaluating films in direct comparison with each other, but while watching Oren Moverman's directorial debut, "The Messenger," I couldn't help stacking it up against the other major 2009 Iraq/Afghanistan war film, Katherine Bigelow's much-lauded "The Hurt Locker." Films don't exist in a vacuum, and though "The Messenger" and "The Hurt Locker" look at very different aspects of the conflict, they're linked by the cultural milieu. And in that sense, though both are excellent films, I found "The Messenger" to be a far more compelling piece of work. To be fair, I suspect that my viewing of "The Hurt Locker" was affected by that film's overexposure during awards season. But while it's technically superior to "The Messenger," and had plenty of visceral thrills to offer, it didn't hit me on an emotional or cerebral level. It was more provocative, but not nearly as satisfying.
"The Messenger" follows two soldiers, Captain Stone (Woody Harrelson, capping off a great year) and Sergeant Montgomery (Ben Foster). They operate as part of the Army's Casualty Notification service, with the unenviable task of breaking the news of soldiers' deaths to their families, a scenario that most viewers are familiar with from countless war films like "Saving Private Ryan." Stone, the older though not necessarily wiser of the pair, is charged with training Montgomery, recently returned from the front lines and not happy with his new assignment. He's quickly enlightened as to the importance of the role and the challenges that come with it. And though Stone warns him not to get involved with the people they deliver notifications to, Montgomery is drawn to a young widow they encounter, played by Samantha Morton.
I expect viewers might approach "The Messenger" with a certain degree of trepidation because of its subject matter. In the wrong hands, the film could easily have turned out maudlin or exploitative, and it's to Moverman's credit that he handles those vital casualty notification scenes so well. It almost feels voyeuristic at first to watch them, because the emotional impact is so strong. But being forced to bear witness puts the audience right there alongside the soldiers, in the same mental space, sharing their dread or their uncertainty. As we see more and more of them, the psychic weight compounds and it quickly becomes clear that there's no such thing as a typical notification. The film is very good about giving us a look at broad swath of soldiers' families, usually parents and spouses, though there's a memorable run-in with an in-law that goes from borderline comic to heartbreaking in the span of a few seconds.
Foster and Harrelson turn in stellar performances, but Harrelson's the standout here as Captain Stone. Insisting on emotional detachment and adherence to a rigid script while on duty, but putting forth a glib, carefree front off the job, he's a fascinating character. Harrelson gives him an easy, appealing confidence as he rattles off instructions riddled with pithy advice to his new trainee in the opening scenes. And then he slowly introduces cracks in the exterior until it becomes clear how damaged the man really is. Foster's Sergeant Montgomery has a more typical transformation as he sheds his apathy to life on the homefront and adjusts to navigating a different kind of battlefield. His best scenes are with Harrelson as they jostle their way from a bumpy alliance to a genuine friendship.
The supporting cast provides a wealth of small, but solid performances. Samantha Morton's character, Olivia, turns out to be less of a love interest and more of a catalyst for Montgomery's rehabilitation. She has some of the film's most poignant scenes - her reaction to tragedy much more low-key than any of the others, but ultimately no less powerful or affecting. Indie princess Jena Malone appears briefly as Montgomery's ex-girlfriend, and Steve Buscemi shows up early on as an antagonistic father. Most of the casualty notifications featured actors I didn't recognize, but so much the better for the film's verisimilitude. Aside from one or two cases of regrettably overwrought reactions, they easily stand in for the real people who have to face the unthinkable.
Like "The Hurt Locker," "The Messenger" benefits from a lack of heavy-handed commentary. This is not a pro-war or anti-war film. Its themes are universal and it could take place in any era, during any war, but just happens to take place during the current one. The casualties are treated as a fact of life, and no meaning is attached to them, good or bad. The families sometimes question what their loved ones died for, but they do not make speeches or indulge in political posturing. Stone and Montgomery do not search for justifications and provide no answers. It's not part of the job or the story that Moverman wants to tell.
As the title makes clear, this is not a film about the message, but the men that are necessary to deliver it. "The Messenger" finally gives them their due.