There have been many movies in which we see Army men appear at folks' homes to give notice of the deaths of soldiers. It is usually a brief scene with little spoken, but here these men, in the form of Ben Foster as a Staff Sgt. recently deployed from Iraq, and Woody Harrelson as a Captain whose war was Desert Storm, get their own movie.
Under Harrelson's gruff mentoring, Foster learns quickly that a stint as a member of the Casualty Notification service can be as almost as wrenching and painful as front line combat.
Harrelson deals with this by going by strict protocol. He sternly tells Foster to speak only to the next of kin and avoid physical contact: "In case you feel like offering a hug or something - don't". Foster replies "I'm not going to be offering any hugs, sir."
Foster's life in the downtime is pretty dire. He is love with a girl named Kelly (Jena Malone) who is marrying somebody else and he spends his time in his dark dumpy apartment drinking while blasting heavy metal music. He becomes infatuated with housewife Samantha Morton to whom he has delivered bad news.
Morton takes the news of her dead husband reasonably well, even shaking Foster and Harrelson's hands while saying: "I know this can't be easy for you". On their walk away from her, Harrelson calls this response "a first". Foster's infatuation with Morton is initially creepy - he sits in his car watching her through the window and he follows her at the mall. Once he makes contact with her some of the creepiness dissolves but uneasiness remains as they flirt on the faint edge of a relationship.
Morton's eyes hint at a back story that we never hear but we don't need to - the emotional terrain of lives lost and those left behind sets the film's entire tone. Unfortunately this semblance of a plot involving Morton is abandoned for a large chunk of THE MESSENGER.
Foster and Harrelson go off and get drunk, get in a fight, and crash former flame Malone's reception in a pointless display of untamed testosterone for too much of the sloppy narrative. This is a shame because Morton's scenes are the most moving. There are some other powerful passages in this film, mostly in the first half's house calls (Steve Buscemi has an intense cameo as a heartbroken father of a fallen son), but the film is too disjointed and detached to have the searing impact it aims for.
Moverman's movie just glosses the surface of the psyche of these disturbed men. Foster has proven time and time again that he has the chops to create fully realized characters - witness Six Feet Under and his scene stealing turn in 3:10 TO YUMA - but this soldier is just a sketch and so is its story. As a supporting player, Harrelson is on more solid ground but still suffers from familiarity - the older brother feel of his character is not unlike his turn in ZOMBIELAND.
Though I wasn't feeling it, THE MESSENGER is sure to be regarded as a noble effort. Its attempt to delve into this tense territory is admirable and its sincere tone is intact throughout its running time, but I was too often distracted by its shrugging sensibility in place of a statement.
Audiences of late have tended to stay away from downer Iraq war related film fare. This time out it's going to be especially hard to blame them.