Review: The Messenger

Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster star in a first-rate drama about the cost of war

Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster star in a first-rate drama about the cost of war

Woody Harrelson stars in The Messenger as a U.S. army officer who has the job of informing spouses or parents that a loved one has just been killed. ((Alliance Films))
Though there are plenty of moments of shock and awe in the affecting new war drama The Messenger, none of them occur on battlefields.

Like The Hurt Locker, Stop-Loss and a handful of other recent war-themed movies, this is a story about the psychic devastation caused by combat. But first-time director Oren Moverman is determined to come at that story from a new angle, and he creates an impressive character study that’s quiet, stealthy and deeply moving.

Working with co-scriptwriter Alessandro Camon, Moverman begins The Messenger on familiar ground, with a soldier, Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), who's been wounded in Iraq and is back at home in New Jersey, trying to rebuild his body and his life. In addition to his damaged leg and scarred, drippy eye, there are emotional injuries, involving a former girlfriend (Jena Malone), now engaged to marry somebody else.

Montgomery is tightly wound, and he spends his sleepless nights pounding walls and listening to metal bands. But just as it looks like The Messenger is gearing up for a post-traumatic stress disorder storyline, things veer off in another direction entirely. The decorated war hero is assigned to the Casualty Notification team, where he’ll spend the remainder of his military stint working alongside the blustery Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson). The two army men must perform the thankless task of knocking on doors and informing spouses or parents that a loved one has just been killed.

Stone has been working on the "angel of death squad" for a long time, and he’s very by- the-book. A recovering alcoholic who’s made a mess of his personal life, he clings to army rules like a life raft, lecturing Montgomery aggressively and at length on the protocol they must follow each day. The details are fascinating: Don’t knock. Never use phrases like "passed on." Always stick to the script provided in the binder. And no matter what, do not touch the next of kin. This last one’s a biggie for Stone, and will prove the hardest rule for the empathetic Montgomery to heed.

The Messenger Trailer


To do the job properly, these men need to protect and trust each other – something that’s difficult for both, given their conflicting temperaments, and the fact they’ve served in different wars, in different capacities. They’re wary at first, but the grim nature of their work draws them together. In a series of after-hours outings, Montgomery and Stone become friends, and one of the freshest things at work in The Messenger is the warmth and humour the buddies generate amidst all the sadness they face. Always the blowhard teacher, Stone is given to great, profane rants, one of the funniest involving his observation that the biggest bummer of the recent wars is the lack of quality brothels.

Much of The Messenger feels like a two-hander, with Stone and Montgomery drawing each other out. Moverman proves himself a great actor’s director, often hanging back as his leads speak in long, uninterrupted takes. He gets a restrained, surprising performance from Foster, who has to wordlessly suggest all of the emotions churning inside his traumatized character.

Harrelson is equally nuanced as Stone. Though his character is outwardly the more together of the two, Harrelson approaches his role as if it were an artichoke, peeling back the spiky leaves until all that’s left is Stone’s tender, bruised heart. That he manages to do this while being twinkle-eyed, graceful and funny is all the more astonishing. He makes it look easy, and his Oscar nomination for the role is well deserved.

Iraq vet Will Montgomery (Ben Foster, right) is assigned to the army's Casualty Notification service, partnered with Capt. Tony Stone (Harrelson). ((Alliance Films) )
Each scene where the soldiers deliver an unwelcome message on somebody’s doorstep feels like a movie unto itself, with each character Stone and Montgomery visit responding differently. There’s the dad (Steve Buscemi, nailing his brief appearance) who spits on the men and calls them cowards; the mother who slaps Stone’s face; the young woman who emits a howl more animal than human; and the widow, Olivia (the always top-notch Samantha Morton), who says to the two men, "I know this can’t be easy for you."

Filmed in bare-bones style, these brief, nerve-fraying meetings cut to the core of what makes The Messenger a standout among current war movies. Stone and Montgomery are both broken toys, shattered by their experiences in Kuwait and Iraq. The Messenger is about them, but it’s also about many others – the family members answering those doors, the anonymous soldier at the bar who can’t hold it together at his welcome home party, the sympathetic friends and lovers who don’t know how to react to an off-colour joke about the war.

Moverman wants us to hear each of their stories, and so gives each of his characters their dignity and due. They are all casualties, a fact this gifted rookie communicates gently, without being overtly political or preachy. As Stone and Montgomery know, sometimes the most plainly delivered message is the most shattering one of all. 

The Messenger opens in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver on Feb. 26.

Lee Ferguson writes about the arts for CBC News.