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Ben Foster, left, stars as Will Montgomery, a U.S. Army officer who has just returned home from a tour in Iraq and is assigned to the Casualty Notification service. He is partnered with fellow officer Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson, right) to bear the bad news to the loved ones of fallen soldiers.

4 out of 4 stars


The Messenger

  • Directed by Oren Moverman
  • Written by Oren Moverman and Alessandro Camon
  • Starring Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton
  • Classification: 14A

First, let's celebrate the coincidence: Two of the best movies about the Iraq war just happen to work superbly as companion pieces. The Hurt Locker may be getting all the attention and awards but The Messenger is at least as good and perhaps, given its delicate handling of a sensitive subject, even better. The first travels directly to the urban battlefront where bombs explode and, thus, where life and death suspensefully cohabit. The second returns home, where life muddles on even as death's news arrives from an ominous distance. Here, the news is the bombshell and nothing, certainly not its bearers, can defuse the blast. Now, the locker has been opened, the hurt has been done, and there is no suspense - only its shocked residue.

From the first frame onward, director and co-writer Oren Moverman keeps the audience as off-balance as his characters. For instance, the opening shot appears to be a shed tear, but things aren't what they seem. Instead, Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is applying drops to his injured left eye. That, and a bad leg, and the unwanted label of "decorated war hero" are the remnants of his tour in Iraq. So is his ex-girlfriend Kelly, engaged to another man now, although still willing to meet him in his barren apartment for an offering of sex and sympathy. He accepts both with a preoccupied politeness. His heart isn't cold so much as numb, and the script skirts the expected melodrama - it's way too savvy to recycle the spurned soldier cliché.

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With three months left to serve, Will and his medals are assigned to the "Casualty Notification Team" - yes, those who dress up in parade uniform to knock on doors and intone, "We regret to inform you." His partner has refined the job to a mechanical science. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) is a career soldier without much of a career and even less of a life - thrice-divorced, a semi-recovering alcoholic, an eager womanizer but a lonely soul. His advice to Will is to deliver the awful news from an emotionless distance. Just read the script, give no comfort, don't pretend that the blow can be softened. And one other thing: "I should warn you, some of them have guns." In this line of work, shooting the messenger is no mere figure of speech.

There are six delivered messages, the set-pieces that form the naked spine of the movie. Each is uniquely surprising, each is raw and unsentimental and yet deeply moving, and each is as white-knuckle intense as any of those equivalent sequences in The Hurt Locker. Moverman (whose screenplays for Jesus' Son and I'm Not There suggest an ability to combine the painful with the poetic) has written them with an exquisite ear, then let his camera look on unblinkingly. Again, it is death's inevitability, the sheer tragic lack of suspense, that invests these scenes with such dreadful power.

Still, this is just the harrowing spine. Around it, the film builds the flesh of life's ongoing saga, of the relationships that slowly, tentatively, begin to develop. The most obvious involves Will and Tony who, in their distinct ways, are both making a virtue of isolation. Doom's messenger by day, and a party-hearty jerk by night, Harrelson's role is the showier, and he takes full advantage, laying on the false bravado while still capturing the essential loneliness, punctuated by a sequence (the kind that Oscar adores) that sees him breaking down in a flood of tears. This time, the tears are real.

Since Will is a man of fewer words, Foster's is the trickier performance, yet he conveys just as much, always hinting at the roiling interior beneath the impassive surface. And when the words finally flow, in a monologue that reveals the hard facts of his Iraqi tour, Foster manages to tap this open well of emotion without breaking the seal on his intrinsically closed character. That's quite a feat, and quite a scene.

But the still centre of the picture belongs to Samantha Morton. Such a wonderfully quiet actor. She plays the widowed Olivia, who receives the news with an eerie calm: Apparently, the war had changed her husband, for the worse, long before it killed him. But his death changes the emotional fabric again, and, later, Morton delivers the picture's most chilling line with heart-breaking conviction: "I loved him once and, now that he's dead, I love him again." Never has a truism - that a military death elevates victims into heroes, erasing their sins - been more truthfully rendered.

Only once does Olivia rise to anger, but at a different set of soldiers, at two army recruiters trolling the local mall for aimless teenagers, plying them with macho platitudes. At this pair, she shouts her ire loudly and, for a fleeting second, war's tragic endings flip to its innocent beginnings, leaving The Messenger to send its gravest message: The cannon is costly but, my God, the fodder always comes cheap.

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