There is not a battlefield sequence in the war drama “The Messenger.” But what these soldiers endure is just as traumatic.
And unlike the other big war film of awards season, “The Hurt Locker,” the intensity here isn’t in what the soldiers are doing, but what they’re feeling.
The story follows Will (Ben Foster), an Army officer who has just returned home wounded from Iraq and is assigned to the Army’s Casualty Notification service. He is to be paired with fellow officer Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson, who received an Oscar nomination for this performance).
Their task seems overly simple to Will — to give the bad news to the loved ones of fallen soldiers — and he doesn’t feel he is a good fit for the job. He’s not religious. And it’s clear he isn’t the warm-and-fuzzy type. But he has no choice.
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He is primed on the job by Tony, who has it all down to rigid procedure. Stick to a practiced script, don’t touch the family members, don’t get emotionally involved. Get in, inform, get out.
But Will soon learns it’s not that easy, and each outing has its own conflicts. These innocent family members are the real — helpless — victims of war.
Some of the loved ones are so shocked that they lash out at the officers. Some spit on them. Slap them. Call them names. And the officers must stand there and take it.
Will grapples with his compassion, and his own torment from battle (he was deemed a hero but feels unworthy).
But then he and Tony must inform Olivia (Samantha Morton) that her husband was killed in the line of duty. And Will is somehow attracted to her selflessness, her compassion.
They slowly form a friendship, one that teeters on romance, and they both grapple with how to handle it.
But the real story explores Will and Tony’s bond. They may not be in the trenches, but they are certainly still on the front lines, of a different sort. What emerges is an at times humorous but moving portrait of grief, friendship and survival.
It’s a solid, confident debut from first-time director Oren Moverman (whose script with co-writer Alessandro Camon is nominated for best screenplay), though his camera lingers a bit too long without any cuts for my taste.
But he smartly lets the actors inhabit their space, and the film is a veritable acting showcase.
This is certainly Harrelson’s best performance of his career, and he shows impressive, calculated range. His character deals with his own wounds, guilt and loneliness — he aches for a real connection. Foster is equally brilliant. We feel every bit the pain he is trying desperately to keep from rising to the surface.
And Morton (who should have gotten an Oscar nod) gives her character much depth. Her acting is effortless, detailed, and a marvel to watch.
“The Messenger” is sad at times, but it’s brave and courageous — much like the soldiers it portrays.