Who’s In It: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Jena Malone, Samantha Morton
The Basics: Assigned to the Casualty Notification Office, soldier Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is paired with an older, jaded partner (Woody Harrelson) and discovers that his new domestic assignment requires a different kind of strength than his tour seeing action in Iraq. As he learns the intricacies of his new job, Will deals with demons from his past, adjusts to life back home, and grows close to a widow (Samantha Morton) whose husband has died in the war.
What’s The Deal: The Messenger is a quiet miracle of a film. In his directorial debut, Oren Moverman (a screenwriter whose credits include Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There and Ira Sachs’ Married Life) elicits powerful performances from his cast and offers an unconventional take on a genre concerned with Iraq, which has largely fallen flat with a few exceptions (notably, the excellent The Hurt Locker). It speaks to not only the toll war takes on soldiers in the field, but the lasting losses felt by loved ones back home who learn from uniformed messengers when and how their sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, husbands and wives have died in the line of duty. That The Messenger conveys the scope of the life-changing devastation left by war within the constraints of independent filmmaking and with largely improvised performances makes its triumph all the more impressive.
Get Ben Foster An Oscar, Stat: The strength of The Messenger can be whittled down to two words: Ben Foster. In his first major leading role (unless you count the Kirsten Dunst rom-com Get Over It, which I don't) the character actor (3:10 to Yuma, Alpha Dog, X-Men: The Last Stand) is a revelation, a disciplined loner suffering his secret wartime survivor guilt in silence while tentatively reaching for human connections. His is a fully formed character, embodying a spectrum of emotions with little dialogue: anger, resentment, generosity, cynicism, longing, compassion. It’s gratifying to see Foster take the spotlight after honing his craft playing edgy characters and stealing scenes from bigger names. Hollywood should take note and give Foster more leading man roles.
Supporting Nods Go To: Woody Harrelson as the wisecracking, womanizing Cpt. Tony Stone, who gives The Messenger its much-needed moments of levity. Samantha Morton, an actress who actually looks like a real woman, as a widow drawn to Will Montgomery against her better judgment. Steve Buscemi, whose shocking reaction to Will and Tony’s notification yields one of the film’s most touching payoffs. Even Yaya Dacosta, a Cycle 3 contestant on “America’s Next Top Model,” does a damn fine job in a tearjerking bit part.
Bring Tissue For Those Notifications: The material is inherently manipulative, but Moverman does his best to make Tony and Will’s visits to next of kin as emotionally authentic as possible. Shot mostly with handheld cameras, the notifications play out in long single takes, following improvised exchanges between the actors. The results are raw and powerful ballets of emotion that vibrate with real dread, remorse, shock, devastation and grief. The most subtle notification is a reversal of sorts, a lovely and wistful scene that plays out slowly in one take between Foster and Morton. You just don’t get scenes like this in mainstream film.