Oren Moverman's The Messenger comes at a strange time—for it and for us—but that seems appropriate enough. There have been a number of movies made about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but none has struck much of a nerve. We've seen our fill on the news, and if we've made up our minds about it one way or the other we haven't needed the cinema to help us. And now, as it becomes clear that these operations are running their course, the tone has shifted, and we have for the most part moved on to bickering about other similarly important things. But until a few moments after the last shot is fired, the cost of war remains a constant: Brave men and women will continue to give their lives, and the people they knew and loved will continue to shoulder a world without them.
Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) knows firsthand about both scenarios. Having returned scarred and decorated from Iraq, Will finds himself staring down a future in civilian life, but the Army has plans for him in the meantime: a stint in "casualty notification," visiting the next of kin of fallen soldiers before they hear it anywhere else. He objects that he's not a religious man, nor one of great compassion. He's informed in return that these qualities may make him ideal for the task.
Will is teamed up with stern Gulf War vet and casualty-notification lifer Capt. Tony Stone (an unusually serious Woody Harrelson), who makes him for a head case. Tony lays out the protocol, both official and personal: no ambiguous language about death, speak to no one besides the "N.O.K," no physical contact. Then, before it could possibly sink in, they're off to notify.
Will and Tony's interaction with the wives and parents of the deceased are the crux of the film, and Moverman (making his directorial debut after co-scripting Todd Haynes' Dylan riff I'm Not There) makes each of them count, exploring a thorough social cross-section and making each unique grief ring true. Will's first exposure to the process is the film's finest scene—attempting to call on a serviceman's mother, they instead encounter his pregnant girlfriend, who insists the mother will be home momentarily. The girlfriend is at first concerned only that her beau has gotten himself into trouble; when the mother walks through the front door 90 seconds later, Will and Tony's determined silence has already connected the dots.
Each of these scenes is powerful in its own way, and the impact never diminishes. As we observe in Tony, it's not a job you get used to, but one you harden yourself against. The due focus on these encounters, though, sets a bad structural example for the rest of the film, and The Messenger quickly settles into a sort of dour road movie. Will and Tony find a tentative closeness, and minor, hopelessly episodic conflicts (Will breaks the unwritten rules, Tony falls off the wagon) bring out different sides of each of them. But Moverman's parallel character study has nothing tangible to prop it up, and he offers nothing definitive enough to impress an arc on either of his subjects, or the film as a whole.
There is an exception to this listlessness, floating somewhere in the middle of the film. After delivering the bad news to young widow Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton), Will is struck by her composure, and pursues her. Foster and Morton bring a fractured chemistry to a coupling of confusion and false starts, and we are perhaps doubly charmed because there is no room in the rest of the film for the sweetness we see in their scenes together. Full of strong material, their dalliance threatens to bring the film some narrative purpose, but it's an empty threat. Morton disappears almost entirely from the third act, and we grudgingly turn our attentions back to Will and Tony.
What's left is a film that efficiently courts emotional response, but doesn't know what to do with it once it's stockpiled. There is a sadness, then, that hangs over the whole thing, never really purged or resolved, occupying us with bigger ideas and then asking us to zero in on the nuances of two damaged men. Without its honorable intentions, The Messenger might be mistaken for exploitation; as it stands it is an effectively humanistic meditation on grief with no real story to tell.