“The Messenger” is one of those dramas that terms like “somber” and “sober” were coined for.
It involves soldiers who bear the heavy responsibility of “bereavement notification.” They have the unhappy task of telling the next of kin that their relative has died in combat.
Two servicemen stationed at Fort Dix in New Jersey travel around the Eastern seaboard to dole out the bad news. They attempt to fulfill this difficult assignment while maintaining emotional distance.
There are stringent rules that must be adhered to. Only the next of kin can receive the official news. They cannot be touched or comforted. Words like “I’m sorry” are strictly forbidden.
The restrictions are just fine with Army Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson from “Zombieland”), a recovering alcoholic who uses the guidelines as a form of protection.
But Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster from “3:10 to Yuma”) is the unwilling newcomer. A returning war hero, Will chafes under these restrictions. He and Tony come into conflict when he strays from the rulebook.
We’re witness to a number of notifications. The reactions run the gamut from anger to resignation to uncontrollable grief. The despondency on display is difficult to endure.
But screenwriter Alessandro Camon (“The Bandit K”) and first-time director Oren Moverman use this setup as an opportunity to explore other complicated ideas.
Among them is the inability for those of us who have not endured the horrors of combat to understand what our soldiers have been through. Plus, harrowing experiences tend to change people forever. This fact is sometimes very hard for the rest of us to accept.
Camon and Moverman tackle these matters in an utterly non-political way. They make no attempt to comment upon the current wars in the Middle East except to imply that all such conflicts come with a high price.
Harrelson, who is still a sadly underrated actor, is quite believable as the conflicted officer. Foster is also very convincing, delivering a nuanced performance as a soldier who bears his physical and emotional battle scars with dignity. Their interplay seems unerringly authentic.
Samantha Morton (“Synecdoche, New York”) is equally impressive as a young woman who begins a gentle friendship with Will after he delivers the news of her loved one’s death.
Although it is rough and sometimes hard to stomach, “The Messenger” is an intelligent and absorbing drama that provides a human context to the familiar press shots of flag-draped coffins. (R) Rating: ***
* Avoid at all costs
** Only if you're bored
*** Good movie
**** Well worth your time
***** Be sure to see it