With nary a bloody battle sequence in sight, The Messenger expertly establishes a tale of sorrow, grief, and hope on the other side of war. In his confident directorial debut, Oren Moverman excises explosions and gunfire in favour of homespun drama brought to a brilliant boil by a cast of astonishing actors. The horrors of war are never seen, but they remain present throughout the entire haunting narrative.
This story of a Staff Seargant named Will (Ben Foster) who returns home from Iraq, only to be quickly drafted by the Army's Casualty Notification service, is a brutally searing portrait of loss. Will is put under the command of ornery officer Tony (Woody Harrelson), a lonely soul who wears his emotional detachment like a badge of honour. Tony teaches Will the subtleties of Notification and then the pair embark on a series of harrowing journeys to inform various families that their loved ones are coming home in a body bag.
The subject matter is grim, but Moverman, who shares screenplay credit with Alessandro Camon, communicates the pain of every Notification visit with heartbreaking honesty. Every parent or wife or lover reacts in a different way, none less believable than the last, and so the dramatic engine of the movie always feels entirely organic. The Messenger is not a static snapshot of grief, but rather a powerful plunge into the sad wreckage of war. The narrative bravely sidesteps cliché at every turn, avoiding the obvious and achieving a touching poignancy that is rarely seen in war cinema nowadays.
Grabbing on to the meaty might of the script, Foster and Harrelson fill every crevice of their characters. They are so completely immersed in their roles that Will and Tony feel like real people whose lives bleed outside the stoic frames of celluloid. They do not simply begin and end at the edges of any given scene, but rather stretch beyond the confines of each and every moment. There is a genuine history behind both of these characters and their occasionally mentioned back-stories are more felt than loudly announced.
These two characters are living in a world of hurt that is alien to the majority of people who pass through their lives and the two actors find moving ways to illustrate that internal conflict. Will and Tony are emotionally marooned in a barren landscape that looks like home, so these two initially disparate beings find solace in the nooks and crannies of their budding friendship. But while they exist in a sullen state of solitary confinement in the context of the movie, Foster and Harrelson are far from alone.
Samantha Morton turns in a carefully controlled performance as a widow who captures Will's heart. They meet under tragic circumstances, but soon find a sense of soothing comfort when they are together. Foster and Morton have real chemistry between them, which is no small feat at the best of times. To challenge the actors and the dramatic range of the subplot, Moverman and Camon ensure that the potentially romantic relationship is defined by longing and emotional confusion.
This is a love story stripped of the usual moments of passion that are regularly employed in these types of cinematic situations. The two characters clearly have a connection, but they are afraid to take the next collective step. They are stuck in neutral, unable to find the necessary traction that can make their romance a reality. That Foster and Morton still manage to make an indelible impression during their shared scenes of stares and awkward pauses is a tender testament to their amazing abilities.
Morton is a fantastic addition to the cast, but Moverman doesn't stop there. Indie staple Steve Buscemi appears in a brief role that further widens the narrative embrace. Buscemi has been appearing in American independent movies for over two decades and his veteran professionalism adds another layer of dramatic energy to the proceedings. His small performance is an excellent example of why this Messenger's heart beats so beautifully and with such authentic emotional rhythm. Every actor in the movie, no matter the size of their role, is completely committed to Moverman's vision.
The cast of The Messenger gives Moverman the ability to powerfully execute his respectful ode to the soldiers of the world, but it is also Moverman's faith in his actors that allows each character to grow on screen with such profound precision. This creative symbiosis is only ever on display in great movies, which makes The Messenger something special. It is a movie about war at eye level, as seen by the people who have lived it and those who have been touched by it.
This is certainly not the first war movie to ignore the overseas action in order to focus entirely on the conflict at home and it will most assuredly not be the last. But what Moverman, Camon, and the whole cast have created here is a movie that speaks to anyone who is interested in listening. The Messenger is not about flag-waving patriotism and it is not about anti-war sentiment, nor is it ever about appealing to a predictable series of assumptions. It is a staggering examination of a form of pain and regret that cannot be generalized nor simplified, but rather must be faced, head-on and in all its convoluted horror, so we can finally find hope on the other side.