Just when movies about the war in Iraq had exhausted audience interest, this summer's sleeper hit The Hurt Locker came along. And just when those same audiences thought there was only one movie about Iraq that could resonate with them, The Messenger comes along. Starring Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson and Samantha Morton, the film is not only a revelatory look at the war's logistical repercussions stateside, but an examination of the emotional toll not only battle but survival takes on soldiers, culminating in a poignant tale of redemption that counts as one of the very best films of the year.
Foster (3:10 To Yuma) plays Will Montgomery, a staff sergeant more or less waiting out his last days as a military officer after an extended tour of duty in Iraq. Although he initially (and understandably) reluctant to participate when he is enlisted to inform families of the deaths of their loved ones, he bonds with his superior officer, Tony Stone (Harrelson), and slowly emerges from his own emotional morass as a result of reaching out to these grieving families. But when he and Tony inform a mother named Olivia (Morton) of her husband's death, he becomes inextricably involved in her and her son's life, realizing that the tenuous relationships he previously participated in are no substitute for something more meaningful.
As a reliable provider of odd and idiosyncratic performances, Foster often overwhelms his material, but such is not the case here. The film itself feels almost as tightly wound as Foster's character, a man consumed by his own demons but ultimately liberated from them by sharing in the grief of the families whom he speaks to, and Foster is game for anything that writer-director Oren Moverman and co-screenwriter Alessandro Camon throw at him. It's a powerful, Oscar-worthy performance, primarily because Foster conveys genuine likeability – a characteristic he hasn't often indulged – even when he struggles to deal with his own problems in the face of so much greater pain and agony.
The tender and believable relationship that develops between Will and Olivia can only be credited to Foster's nuanced and authentic sensitivity to both his own shortcomings and Olivia's situation. In just a matter of a few tense scenes, he conveys longing, sensitivity and the understanding of a man who struggles with too many emotions to expect clarity from someone else, and finds a remarkable, powerful truth among the mystery and ambiguity of their mutual longing.
Meanwhile, 2009 seems to be Harrelson's year, returning from a series of smaller-profile films in order to offer not only actorly credibility here, but commercial chops in October's Zombieland. He and Foster connect as characters because of their mutual self-destruction, or at the very least, self-loathing, but Harrelson finds a way to communicate his fragile self-worth in a way that doesn't seem self-pitying but merely an acknowledgment, and a certain kind of pride, about one's duty that legitimizes his own insecurities and second-guesses.
Again, there's a certain fatigue that seems to have set in with audiences, admittedly including yours truly, for films about the war in Iraq and its repercussions at home. The Messenger proves if nothing else that any well-told story transcends the actual or perceived limitations of its genre, but it also confronts literally and head-on the realities of losing soldiers in war, whether it's this one or any other, in a way that is overwhelming and undeniable. Each scene in which Tony and Will contact families is different than the last, not only because each is messy and unpredictable and unclean, but because, quite frankly, there is simply no way that someone can inform anybody that their loved one has died.
Director Moverman does such a wonderful job capturing the sense of humanity not only in the reception of that news, but the delivery of it by these two tortured souls, without editing or cleaning up or manipulating those moments. The audience feels an inescapable sense of connection with the families and the soldiers simultaneously, and Moverman only later loads these moments with a subtextual meaning that would in another movie be "the point," rather than the point being the emotion and humanity of the moment. That Will slowly begins to "feel" again because of his work is secondary, and understandably so, to the physical and emotional revelation of the terrible news he is forced to deliver, and Moverman's camera lingers in extended, improvised takes in order to provide a sense of realism and authenticity rather than forced dramatic emphasis.
Overall, and again, The Messenger overcomes whatever perceived or actual limitations its subject matter might provide, instead offering an amazing foundation for deeper emotional truths, character development that is substantive, and a story that, love or hate the war, any viewers can immerse themselves in. While it's sad that the film's low-budget origins and modest technique may earn it little recognition come awards time, there's no denying that Foster, Harrelson, Morton and Moverman have accomplished great things with this film, and so there's a satisfaction that their work will live on, and hopefully do some justice not only to the soldiers who died in conflicts around the world protecting our freedoms, but the ones who continue to live and suffer the guilt of surviving in their comrades' places. In which case, The Messenger will hopefully resuscitate interest not only in films about Iraq, but the war itself, because it shows the toll war takes on man both when they die in battle, and when they survive as well.