Starring: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton
Directed by: Oren Moverman (debut)
Written by: Oren Moverman (“I’m Not There”) and Alessandro Camon (“The Bandit K.”)
While films about the war in Iraq or issues associated with these events have not done well at the box office over the last few years (see “Lions for Lambs,” “The Lucky Ones,” “The Kingdom,” “In the Valley of Elah”), there are still many compelling stories that need to be heard.
Like the intense film “The Hurt Locker” from earlier this year, which follows the stressful experiences of an Army bomb squad, the intimate drama “The Messenger” is another of those rare narratives that will not be featured on the evening news anytime soon. Instead of taking audiences to the frontlines like in “The Hurt Locker,” “The Messenger” focuses on the painstaking mission of the soldiers who must notify the families when a loved one dies in combat.
In “The Messenger,” Ben Foster (“3:10 to Yuma”) plays Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, a soldier three months away from completing his military service when he is assigned to join Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) on his Casualty Notification team and deliver the worse possible news anyone could imagine getting.
As Tony teaches Will the ropes in his new position (some rules include never making physical contact with family members, only notifying the next of kin, and avoiding phrases like “passed away”), Will is overwhelmed by the responsibility he has undertaken and the lives he is changing with the few professionally-reported but often aloof words he has memorized from the Army’s authorized script.
It’s not a stretch for Will to operate this way since he is mostly introverted himself (his only relationship is with a childhood friend who is now engaged). But after going on a notification mission, he begins to open up to Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton), a widow he recently informed of her husband’s death. Despite strict orders from Tony not to get involved in her life, Will can’t help but to feel a connection with her established only through tragic circumstances.
While Morton and Harrelson are top-notch with their performances, it the less-seasoned Foster who is unforgettable in the first lead role of his career. The powerful scenes director/co-writer Oren Moverman (“I’m Not There”) has crafted along with writing partner Alessandro Camon (“The Bandit K.”) always keep Foster’s Will on the brink of an emotional breakdown. It’s fascinating to watch Will fight through the grief and heart-wrenching moments of his job and form the close bond with both Olivia and Tony while they, too, serach for a way to confront with their own agony.
“The Messenger” isn’t just another story about Iraq. It literally brings the harsh realities of war to your front door. It’s up to audiences to take that step and invite the message in. While it may be difficult to witness, it really is a film every American should see.