If anyone asks you where the best and brightest new directors are coming from, point to Oren Moverman, whose vividly touching and vital debut feature signals the arrival of a filmmaker — he wrote the script with Alessandro Camon — who can bare the soul of a character with precision and healing compassion. The Messenger, showing humanity under siege, opens wounds inflicted by the Iraq War — not on the battlefield but in the hearts of the families of soldiers who never made it back home. It’s the job of Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson in top form), of the Casualty Notification Office, to knock on the doors of wives, husbands and parents to deliver the worst kind of news.
Tony soon has company on his mission in the reluctant person of Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), an injured war hero with three months left on his enlistment and no stomach for his CNO duties. “In our job, there’s no such thing as a satisfied customer,” Tony tells Will, establishing the blend of hurt and humor that marks the film. There are six notifications in the course of the film — Steve Buscemi is devastating as a parent who explodes in rage at losing his son — and to heighten spontaneity, Moverman didn’t always tell Harrelson and Foster beforehand how the next of kin would react. No wonder The Messenger bristles with the intensity of life being lived. Tony, a veteran of two tours of duty without combat action, lays out the rules: no hugging or physical contact, no ringing doorbells (just knock), and absolutely no fraternizing with the grief-stricken. The last rule gets quickly broken when Will forges a connection with the newly widowed Olivia (the excellent Samantha Morton), now raising a child alone.
The film pivots on these two men, and Harrelson and Foster are both astounding, digging deep under the surface of their characters to find raw scar tissue. Foster, best known for bad-to-the-bone roles in 3:10 to Yuma and Alpha Dog, subtly uncovers the ache inside Will that is only partially caused by the stress of combat. And Harrelson, riding a box- office wave with the scary-funny Zombieland, once again shows his skills as a superb dramatic actor. Harrelson can impress from the sidelines (No Country for Old Men) or front and center (The People vs. Larry Flynt), but his full-out emotional range here ranks as a career pinnacle. Tony knows how to bluster. Eyeballing a bartending babe, he sasses, “I’d like to strap her on and wear her like a government-issued gas mask.” But this recovering alcoholic is hiding secrets that will come back to haunt him.
Major props to Moverman, who scripted Jesus’ Son, Married Life and the renegade Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There, for cleansing his shattering film of Hollywood sentiment and hectoring politics, concentrating instead on what war does to our shared humanity. Moverman knows war firsthand, having served four years as a paratrooper in the Israeli army. He knows the pressures soldiers live under, and what it takes to pick up the pieces and find strength in what remains behind. That’s why The Messenger hits so hard. Its truths are personal. It means to shake you. And does.