"It must be hard for you," a woman apologetically tells the two officers from the Army's casualty notification division who come to notify her of her husband’s combat death in our ongoing wars in the Middle East. Her concern for their emotional well-being stuns them — they don’t expect next-of-kin to care about anything other than their own loss.
That concern for them is what makes The Messenger, naturalistically directed and co-written by Owen Moverman (co-writer of I’m Not There), so surprisingly compelling. Who would think there’s drama and emotional revelation in the story of these guys, who are after all just doing a job, rather than in the deceased and their families?
But Moverman had the confidence to believe their story is important, too, because, in a way, they also are war’s victims. And he wrote parts that inspired two excellent, underrated actors — Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster — to give their all.
Harrelson is Capt. Tony Stone, an older, caustic loner and recovering alcoholic. Foster, so good in Alpha Dog and other roles, is the younger Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery, recovering from injuries in Iraq and reluctant to get involved in anyone’s tragedy but his own. But he’s also not able to stay uninvolved, as he’s told to be, when he sees how much a newly widowed young mother (a radiantly gentle Samantha Morton) needs comforting.
The film is best when it shows how the men deal with the wrenching, sometimes violent reactions their bad news generates. When it wanders away from that tight focus, it seems a little generic. But the acting always redeems it, as does the sobering knowledge that someone has to do this sad, difficult work in real life. Grade: B-plus
Opens Jan. 1. Check out theaters and show times, see more photos from the film and get theater details here.