In The Messenger, Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery, a decorated Iraq War veteran, is back in the States, close to ending his service, when he gets a new assignment: as the guy who knocks on doors to inform family and spouses that their loved ones are dead.
Played with fierce, twitchy commitment by Ben Foster (3:10 to Yuma, X-Men: The Last Stand), Will is partnered with Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), who has this business down: no physical contact with the NOKs — next of kins — not even a conciliatory shoulder pat, certainly not a hug or an embrace. And only the newly minted widow or widower, or the deceased's parents, are to be told: If a girlfriend answers the door, or a kid, or a sibling, come back another time.
By the end of director and co-writer Oren Moverman's study of grief and loss, Will has pretty much broken every one of those rules. And Stone, the hard, tamped-down officer, has lost his center of gravity, pulled under by the cumulative tide of pain he has witnessed.
There are powerful moments, to be sure. Tracking the two men's hours and days as they wait for the next notification order to come in, then watching as they climb into a car and drive to some suburban house, deciding who's going to be the bearer of the news, puts things in a context that's grimly realistic, full of mundane specificity.
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Steve Buscemi, as the father of a dead soldier, responds to the duo's arrival with rage and bitterness; his torment is palpable. Other visits are likewise charged — with sorrow, anger, agony.
For all the film's gritty verisimilitude, The Messenger is not the great Iraq War movie that Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is. In fact, The Messenger resembles the Bigelow film's only weak point. Near the end of The Hurt Locker, the bomb-squad sergeant (Jeremy Renner) returns home and stands lost in the supermarket aisles, unable to look his wife lovingly in the eye. It is the only time The Hurt Locker feels clichéd.
The Messenger feels that way for long stretches, as the story behind Will's wounds, physical and psychic, is revealed, and as he pursues a relationship with a war widow, played by Samantha Morton. Her Olivia, a working-class New Jersey woman now left alone to take care of a kid, never rings true, despite all of Morton's clenched efforts — or maybe because of them.
And Foster, his body tattooed, his eyes brooding and mean, lets Moverman's screenplay get the better of him. There's a drunken scene at the wedding of Will's ex-girlfriend that's embarrassing not only for Will's behavior, but also for its inclusion in the film.