Conventional wisdom in Hollywood has it that Iraq War-themed movies are fated to fizzle at the box office. Now the superb, not-to-be-missed The Messenger may deservedly break the hex. In his directorial debut, Owen Moverman, who also co-wrote the screenplay, has delivered a powerful, nuanced film about the soldiers stateside who must deliver news of casualties to the next of kin (NOK in Army parlance). Inhabiting their roles to an uncanny degree, all the actors deliver searing performances. But The Messenger's big revelation is the astonishing Ben Foster as main character Will Montgomery, a disoriented war hero just back from unseen horrors, who must struggle, as he puts it, "to find a reason for living."
With just three months of service remaining, Will is tapped by his superiors to team up with gruff career officer Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson, superb) to go knocking on the doors of NOK's and, well, break their hearts. The folks getting the news predictably strike every note on the spectrum of grief and rage. Tellingly, rage at the messenger is the dominant response, with one bereaved father (Steve Buscemi) spitting at and striking Will. But newly widowed Olivia (Samantha Morton) reacts mostly with a flutter of bewilderment. In a rare moment of grace, she reaches out to touch the men's hands, murmuring "This must be hard for you."
Will, who has been shafted by his longtime girlfriend (Jenna Malone), seems mesmerized by gentle, dreamy-eyed Olivia. Violating strict Army protocol not to become involved with a widow, he first stalks her, then helps with chores. Their mutual attraction all but sizzles on the screen. Olivia, though, is still sorting out her feelings for a husband whose head got so messed up by combat, she ceased to recognize the man she married. Yet she extends to Will the promise of a future meeting.
Why is Messenger -- winner of the Berlinale's Silver Bear for best screenplay -- primed to draw viewers, when other Iraq-centered movies have foundered? Well, for one, it's neither directly about the war nor overtly political. And as Woody Harrelson, a pro-peace activist, points out, you can hate the war yet still empathize with soldiers who risk their lives for modest pay. To judge by the houses where Will and Tony go calling in full dress uniform, the fallen are sons of the working poor who lacked access to America's elite colleges, but found in the Army a career path and home. If you're willing to get your legs blown off by an IED you can achieve the military equivalent of tenure.
Messenger makes a few political points, without hammering them home as in most studio product. Consider a scene where Olivia verbally lays into a passel of Army recruiters in a mall attempting to lure young men into the military. Despite the brutality of casualty notification, the film also resists melodrama. True, the six encounters with the next of kin are excruciating; at moments it seems quasi-indecent to train a camera on such devastated souls. Yet mostly Moverman displays an allergy to cliché and a restraint almost French in its elegance.
Take the opening sex scene. Will's crude behavior suggests he's an abusive boor, when in fact, it's soon revealed, he's the one being jerked around. Moverman and fellow screen-writer Alessandro Camon also mine for humor the bond between Will and Tony, as they raise hell, share war stories, and turn up filthy and drunk at the engagement party of Will's ex. Even at that climactic moment the script declines to go for the explosive confrontation you might ordinarily expect.
Though upstaged by the -- must we say bromance? -- the tenderness between Will and Olivia is indelibly portrayed. They don't so much as kiss, yet these actors deliver the hottest screen moments in recent memory. When Will asks to sit alone in Olivia's kitchen, it speaks more eloquently to his inner life than any dialogue. Apparently, Samantha Morton had given birth before the shoot and was nursing on set. It's delightful to see as object of desire a woman whose ripe form echoes that of her real-life counterparts. Here, too, Messenger is honest and right on the money. Extreme thinness is to some extent a class fetish and the owner of a trailer-park grade house is unlikely to resemble Kate Moss. Morton's maternal, slightly older aspect is also, one senses, part of her attraction for Will, a man whose disenchantment with the Army has left him adrift and bereft. In Olivia he sees not just love, but home.
Finally, perhaps, it's Ben Foster's ability to express that most intangible emotion -- yearning -- that gives Messenger its special resonance. It's in the eyes, the body, the voice -- yet how he pulls it off is a mystery. Moverman has singled out Foster as one of the few young actors of his generation "who does not strive to remain a boy in a man's body. Instead, he is a real man, fascinated with exploring the darker corners of life. There is a maturity and longing to his acting that is so layered." The director adds, "Foster went above and beyond the call of duty for this movie, elevating the character to an altogether rare humanity."