The Austin Chronicle

The Messenger

Rated R, 105 min. Directed by Oren Moverman. Starring Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, Eamonn Walker, Steve Buscemi.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 20, 2009

There exists a gulf between those who return home from war and those who have never been, a divide that’s grown particularly profound among veterans of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf and the civilians who can barely imagine what these soldiers have seen and experienced. The Messenger, as its name implies, seeks to communicate across those gaps, to find words for that which is left unspoken and replace hard-won knowledge with understanding and empathy. In his directorial debut, Moverman gives us two memorable characters who jump into the communication breach and lead the way. Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Foster) returns stateside to Fort Dix, injured and decorated but itching to return to combat. Instead, he is reassigned to duty in New Jersey as a member of a “casualty notification” team, the soldiers who inform a deceased soldier’s next of kin of their loved ones' deaths. They have no training in grief counseling or follow-up. All they do is ring the doorbell, deliver the news as compassionately as possible, and then get out of the way so the military’s grief professionals can step in. Will’s senior partner is Capt. Tony Stone (Harrelson), an older career soldier who is also a former alcoholic and nonstop talker. Foster and Harrelson are both stunningly effective in their roles; Will is a quieter, less experienced, and more self-contained version of Tony’s garrulous and seasoned pro. Yet neither of them is able to sleep much, and each seems a hair-trigger removed from complete emotional implosion. Tony hangs on to the military rules for dear life, while Will grows increasingly smitten with a widow (Morton) he encounters while on notification duty. The script by Moverman and Alessandro Camon is replete with smart, crisp dialogue. Moverman, who also wrote the screenplays for I’m Not There, Married Life, and Jesus’ Son and is a veteran of the Israeli military, shows a great sensitivity for this movie’s subject matter. Although the fumbling attraction between Will and the widow Olivia is a little overplayed, there is not a false note in the relationship between the two men. Their rapport is all the more apparent in the largely improvised scenes of the actual notifications. As in real life, the actors never knew who or what was going to greet them on the other side of the door. The Messenger, which first played Austin last month during the Austin Film Festival, is one of the rare movies that communicates honestly and artfully about the real casualties of war: the surviving combatants.

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