Earlier this year, The Hurt Locker took the film-loving world by storm with its brilliant, startling, edge-of-your-seat thrills and its eye-opening look into the hearts and psyches of the modern soldier. In an almost cosmic stroke of cinematic kismet, here, five months later, is a brilliant companion piece. The Messenger tells the story of what likely takes place after those soldiers in Hurt Locker return "home," even though nothing feels like home to them other than the battlefield. And in the beauty of its painstaking observation, The Messenger may well be the best film about the modern American soldier ever made.
No film has ever come close to capturing the powerful nuances of a soldier's wounded mindset like this film. That authenticity comes courtesy of Oren Moverman, a combat veteran of the Israeli army, who draws on his experience and observations to deliver a film that so carefully realizes its characters that it is nearly impossible to come away unmoved. Moverman previously wrote Jesus's Son, about a recovering addict who discovers new life, and co-wrote the beyond-brilliant revolutionary I'm Not There, often dismissed as "the Bob Dylan biopic," but is one of the most vivid filmic creations of recent years. The Messenger is oh-so-different than anything Moverman has done before, most likely because this is Moverman's directorial debut, and as the film unfolds we see the filmmaker's voice developing with each flickering frame.
Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) has just returned from Iraq. After being wounded on the battlefield, he's been sent home to serve out the last three months of his tour. He is assigned as a "messenger," the unfortunate soul who must pay a visit to deceased soldiers' Next of Kin and deliver the "regret to inform" speech. As one might suspect, there is a very spare, robotic standard speech that the messenger is supposed to deliver. The mission is to knock on the door, identify the "N.O.K.," and rattle off the spiel. No touching, no empathizing, no emotion. Do the job and walk away. Simple...right?
Of course it is not at all simple, yet The Messenger doesn't belabor that point, or overdramatize it. Will is not inclined to follow the script, nor does it come naturally for him to deliver the message and walk away unfazed. He is surely suppressing emotions, as many soldiers are, and he lives by a very methodical code, once again, like most soldiers do. Yet there is a crack of emotion that breaks through, a weary, uncertain crack in the armor that allows him to do something unheard of in his current line of duty: care.
Will's guide in his new job is Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson, in another in his string of great 2009 roles, although this one might win him an Oscar), who knows the script and delivers it with perfection every time. Unlike Will, Tony has no battlefield experience to draw on, and he therefore might have an easier time compartmentalizing his emotions. His soldierly nature is pristine and unbreakable, but he allows himself to open up in the best and worst of ways in his journey with Will.
Every new experience is a new battlefield for Will and Tony. Make no mistake: showing up at the door of a stranger and handing them the worst news of their life is an extraordinary war, albeit not of the conventional variety. And each new assignment unveils something completely unexpected. The emotions of each "regret to inform" sequence are as potent as any typical battle sequence, and Moverman allows us to feel each and every wound. What we discover is that we can never truly understand anyone's story, and all we can do is show the smallest bit of empathy, and allow grieving souls to express their pain. It is not "soldierly," strictly speaking, for Moverman to suggest that we can have compassion, but it is undeniably true.
Will eventually becomes drawn to one of his subjects, a newly-widowed mother (Samantha Morton) who handles the bad news with a great deal more dignity than one might expect. Her story is profoundly complex, as is Will's, and perhaps the complications and obstacles in each of their lives can bring them together, not out of flowery love or emotional grandstanding, but simple, painful need. That is the unexpected wallop of The Messenger: the stories that break us apart and bring us together are all driven by need. We need love, companionship, solace, and comfort. There are different battles along the way, each of which comes with a new set of scars...but need very often directs our course. And if there is anything that can help us begin to empathize with others, it is that simple fact.