In THE MESSENGER Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) returns home from Iraq as a wounded but recovering war hero. To complete his remaining service time Will is assigned to the casualty notification team and placed under the command of Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson). Together they are the bearers of bad news that must be delivered in a timely manner to killed soldiers' next of kin.
Tony approaches the work as a high risk military mission. Park up the street so as not to tip off those they're visiting. Do not go off script. Do not touch or console the next of kin. Get in, deliver the message, get out. The casualty assistance team is for dealing with the family members in a personal manner, not them.
Three years sober and thrice divorced, Tony is a hardened man performing a hard job. Will also has his share of emotional injuries that keep him up at night, most notably his frustration with former girlfriend Kelly (Jena Malone). Although she may travel to welcome him home with a conjugal visit, she mostly seems to be moving on with someone else.
Will shows he may be willing to get on with his life when he takes an interest in Olivia (Samantha Morton), a mother who has an unusual reaction to being told her husband is dead, but such a relationship is fraught with complications, not the least of which comes from Tony's sharp disapproval.
THE MESSENGER opens promisingly as we observe two emotionally damaged men do the delicate work that no one wants to do, least of all those soldiers who have served in combat and survived. Their mere presence reminds the next of kin that their loved ones were not as fortunate. Family members try to keep Will and Tony from even saying the words, as though what happened isn't real or true unless verbalized. These painful scenes are not new to war movies, but THE MESSENGER sees them from the unconsidered perspective of those giving, rather than receiving, the news.
Foster and Harrelson are uniformly good at conveying the torment these Army men have internalized and accept as their crosses to bear. Harrelson virtually manages to clench his entire body, even when he's supposedly letting down his guard. Foster burns with a quiet intensity that makes the intention of his actions all the more inscrutable.
THE MESSENGER examines the challenges of being on the casualty notification team, especially now as they must race against the instant spread of information, but eventually it stops seeing the men and just the job. THE MESSENGER grinds to a stop when it becomes clear that Oren Moverman, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay, isn't leading the plot anywhere but toward a pat message about the price of war on the military and unenlisted.
Instead of telling one or both of these characters' stories or illuminating their crises, THE MESSENGER falls into a repetitive pattern of witnessing aggrieved reactions to the awful news and the messengers' struggles to cope. Casualty statistics don't account for the scars war leaves on everyone touched by it, yet THE MESSENGER'S clipped insight that war is hell is just the sort of line straight from the manual that the film strenuously cautions against.