Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is a war hero. He’s got the medals to prove it, and also the scars. He is stationed stateside for the final three months of his tour. This is where “The Messenger” begins; his new assignment is to carry the condolences of the Secretary of the Army to all the families who have lost a son, or daughter, or husband, or father in the war. He works with Woody Harrelson, who tells him, right off the bat, “there’s no such thing as a satisfied customer.” No kidding. Instead of training, he’s given a protocol and a script that ends with “a grief counselor will be contacting you in the next few hours.” One wonders why the Army doesn’t just send the grief counselor to the door in the first place.
A lot of films in the last few years have attempted to deal with the realities of war, often focusing on the home front (take “Stop-Loss,” for instance, or “Brothers,” or “Grace is Gone.”) “The Messenger” is an attempt to portray, not the politics of war or the “glories” of combat, but the toll war takes on those who don’t ever put on a uniform, as well as those who do. Like the revealing (but manipulative) documentary “The Ground Truth,” this film wants to deal with the life of soldiers after they come home and try to return to normal life. It isn’t easy.
The first person Foster and Harrelson visit is Steve Buscemi, who goes all histrionic on them. Understandable. Then they visit a family, including a pregnant girlfriend, who refuse to believe that their loved one is dead. Director Oren Moverman starts piling it on at this point. They visit a hispanic family, and have to use a translator to deliver the worst news in the world. And a young woman whose father doesn’t know she married the boy right before he left for the war.
In the middle of all that, the weeping and tearing of clothes and gnashing of teeth, they visit Samantha Morton, who receives the news quietly, politely, and thanks them, saying “this can’t be easy for you.” Harrelson thinks she’s taken up with another man, but Foster sees her again at the mall, tearing into some Army recruits who are talking about “doing something cool with your life.” He takes her home, fixes her car, drinks her lemonade. An awkward romance starts, then stops, then starts, then stops. “Anyone watching us right now would say you’re a creep taking advantage of my grief,” Morton tells Foster. “And they’d say I’m a #### who’s not grieving at all.” They are both hurting people desperate for compassion, but, just like delivering bad news to families, there are rules that can’t be broken. And they don’t break them.
More than anything, “The Messenger” brought home to me the fact that the war is still going on. With the changing administration and the general passage of time, the whole thing has become less of a hot topic and more of a back burner issue. We don’t debate the connections between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein anymore, or talk about WMDs, or the legality of the whole thing. It’s old hat. But still, soldiers in dress uniform are knocking on doors and delivering the worst news in the world. The war goes on.
Foster, Morton and Harrelson all turn in great performances, and Buscemi is excellent in a second scene near the end. Indeed, there are a number of powerful scenes in this movie, but somehow, the pieces don’t seem to add up to a powerful whole. It lacks narrative structure; Moverman’s not sure what to do with his characters between scenes of bereavement and grief-filled outbursts. “The Messenger” wanders, touching a bit here, a bit there, giving us the obligatory fishing trip scene, the obligatory drunken wedding crashing scene, and so on. Steve Buscemi comes back and delivers a scary good scene near the end. But when the credits roll, “The Messenger” feel strangely unsatisfying; this is a bunch of scenes searching for a movie.