TENSE: Woody Harrelson, front, and Ben Foster are excellent as haunted… (Oscilloscope Laboratories )
For too long, life for Army Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery has been all about death. On the Iraqi frontline where he's been, he and his buddies just wanted to cheat it and survive. Now he's back home with only a few months left in his tour of duty, only to find himself surrounded by it once again.
And so begins "The Messenger," starring Ben Foster as Will in a moving drama that takes a home-front look at the collateral damage of our current desert wars. The film puts us on the front porches of the families left behind and alongside Will as he delivers the worst possible news, that someone they love has died in combat.
It's not a comfortable place to be, but then director Oren Moverman is not out to make anyone comfortable, especially not Will.
The casualty notification team, as it's called, turns out to be an ideal place for the filmmaker, who collaborated with Alessandro Camon on the script, to explore many of the seminal issues raised by any war -- loss, love, friendship, betrayal, duty and honor, and especially the Twilight Zone of experience that separates those who have lived through battles and the rest of us.
Those issues play out in the tension that is immediately crackling between Will and the officer he finds himself reporting to, Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a by-the-book warrior and arm-chair philosopher who spends his time sizing up his new charge while he contemplates the vagaries of life.
Moverman sets the stage with the facts: Within 24 hours of any soldier's death, the casualty notification officers must locate the next of kin and deliver the barest of facts: when, where and how the soldier died, and little else. No hugs, no empathy, no help -- there are other soldiers who will follow offering some of that.
Of course the reality is something else again, and soon we are there as Tony and Will, in full dress -- shirts starched, shoes spit-shined -- deliver their crushing news. We look on as mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters collapse in tears, rage, pain, denial.
Left hanging are the questions that will frame the rest of the film -- who is to say what the rules for grief are, and can a combat soldier ever truly leave the war behind?
Given that as a starting point, it would have been easy for "The Messenger" to turn into a patriotic melodrama or a hopelessly somber tragedy. It is neither. Instead, emotions are used sparingly, with the director's restraint allowing the marvelous central cast -- Foster, Harrelson and Samantha Morton -- to breathe, filling the silences with indelible characters whose humanity makes room for humor and hope as well.
Though Will is mostly recovered from his combat wounds, at least the physical ones, there are other problems that dog him. An ex-girlfriend (Jena Malone) who got engaged to someone else while he was away leaves him lonely, and the chest full of ribbons that say he's a hero do little to assuage his survivor's guilt.
Foster does a good job of showing what it's like to be at the mercy of death 24 hours a day, or at least the beeper that goes off to alert him there's a new casualty for him to deal with. It is a life always on the edge of being interrupted by a reminder of one's mortality.
Meanwhile, a testy friendship begins to develop between Will and Tony during the hours they spend driving to the next unlucky family, or at night in bars trying to recover from the job. Will slugs down whiskey, while Tony hangs onto his sobriety by chewing ice cubes. As they talk about nothing and everything in the way that men sometimes do, there are glimpses of the myriad ways that war reshapes a person.
Though the bits with the families are fleeting, they provide the spine of the film and keep the story moving. Like Will, we're not supposed to get to know them -- no hugs, no tears. Some of the bits are better than others, a few unravel wildly, though none are fatal to the film.
Everything will change with Olivia (Morton), a young woman hanging clothes out to dry on a sunny day with no notion that she is about to become a widow. She is the enigma who, in her way, will bedevil them both and, because Moverman in this impressive first feature has done his job, us as well.
Where others have railed against the verdict they've been handed, Olivia simply absorbs it. Her passiveness, her politeness -- she thanks them for telling her, says she knows it must be hard -- unsettles Tony. Will finds himself wanting to know more, and he's soon broken the no-contact-with-next-of-kin rule, bumping into her at the mall, fixing her car, watching in the distance as her husband is buried.
The filmmaker uses Will and Tony to stand in for the rest of us. Though at one point Tony says the funerals of every combat soldier should be broadcast for everyone to see, military rules guarantee him a comfortable distance. Meanwhile, Will is the one who doesn't want to turn away, and that may be the key to recovering the humanity he thought he'd lost to Iraq.
The performances are of such a caliber that it's hard to single one out. Harrelson slips into Tony's buzz cut as if he were made for soldiering. And Morton makes you feel Olivia's hesitation and uncertainty, whether it's coping with her husband's death or Will's growing feelings, in even the smallest moment.
But the film belongs to Foster. The actor always makes the most of what is handed him, though he's usually required to find his footings around the margins, as he did as the crazed cowboy in "3:10 to Yuma" or the crazed druggie in "Alpha Dog." At his most fundamental, Will is a soldier in search of normalcy, for a way to move beyond the horrors of Iraq, to fit in again. Foster leaves you hoping that Will finds his way home.