It’s an interesting concept: Soldiers returning home after the Iraqi war serving what’s left of their enlistment period as messengers for the Army, instructed to tell unsuspecting husbands, wives or other next of kin that their loved ones won’t be returning. I’m pretty sure it’s not official policy, but that’s what happens to Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery in the second-best film about the Iraqi conflict to come out in 2009, The Messenger. Montgomery is a hero, having saved some colleagues who were left stranded, and is now back in the US, recovering. He’s summoned to meet his colonel, and then his new CO, Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson, in full rug-chewing overacting mode.)
Stone’s job is to play by the book when informing the families of the soldier. “Never say your name”, he tells Montgomery, “it’s not about us, it’s about them. Don’t touch them, don’t hug them, don’t be ambiguous. Don’t say they passed away; they died or were killed.” Montgomery is resistant, of course, not-so-secretly thinking that this isn’t the kind of job a soldier could do, but has to comply. We watch as first a young, pregnant girl is told of her fiancé’s death, followed by a moving scene with Steve Buscemi as a father whose son will never come home.
Ben Foster is an interesting actor, one who brings something quite complex and unexpected to each of his roles. Take, for example, the homosexual possibilities in 3:10 To Yuma or the bully/coward in Alpha Dog; one just hopes he won’t blot his copybook in the forthcoming remake of the 70’s Bronson movie, The Mechanic. Here we anticipate his soldier being the archetypal Army man, the soldier who always follows orders, but he’s not. Neither is he out to buck the system; he’s just about coping. He takes a dislike, as did I, to Captain Stone — a man who makes an art form out of jaw-clenching — but unlike the Captain he can feel the pain of the families. By the time they get to trailer-girl Samantha Morton, he’s far enough involved as to actually follow her after telling her the bad news, for reasons that aren’t immediately clear, even to himself. He sees her at the mall and actually jumps in to help her as she gets involved with Army recruiters, but she doesn’t recognize him. He wasn’t a person earlier; he was a uniform, telling her that her little boy no longer had a father.
As so often happens, the two soldiers gradually grow to accept each other and a friendship is formed, although I have to say that I felt uneasy about it. They seemed to go from the typical old hand-young pup set-up to buddy-buddy far too quickly for my liking. Nonetheless, that’s how it turns out, and soon they’re fraternizing out of hours. Montgomery continues to liaise with Morton’s character, Olivia, and Stone reminisces about a war he never actually attended.
At a shade under two hours, The Messenger dragged after a promising initial setup. I was truly interested in the sort of mental anguish such morbid messengers must carry with them, until the movie took a slow right turn into, well, nothingness for a while. There’s a whole section of around fifteen minutes where it just treads water; a little editing would have helped. Having said that, Samantha Morton shows once again what a reliable actress she is. Despite wearing clothes that looked older than she was, she still carried a certain grace to her, one that was understated but discernibly there. Her Olivia has big decisions to make and she chooses wisely each time. The movie is shot quite matter-of-factly — again, the right choice — and is neither pro nor anti-war. It’s a solid movie, but perhaps not a great one.