The Messenger (2009)
The Messenger (2009)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 45 min.

Release Date: November 13th, 2009 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Oren Moverman Actors: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, Eamonn Walker




he Messenger” features outstanding performances by veteran actor Woody Harrelson and relative newcomer Ben Foster, with challenging moments of coping with grief, suppressing the stresses of war, and reintegration into society. What it lacks is a solid direction for the plot, which wanders frequently, shifting from handling the job to reminiscing about battle to building new relationships and dwelling on old ones. It’s a slice-of-life bit of realism from first time director Oren Moverman that doesn’t have enough order or enough Woody Harrelson.

Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is a war hero injured in combat who must switch jobs to become a casualty notification agent for the army. Adding to his mental strain is his girlfriend Kelly (Jena Malone), who is no longer serious about him, and his new commander Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a stern, unfeeling, and seemingly reluctant participant to ease Will into his new role. The rules are strict: avoid physical contact with the next of kin (NOK), no hugs or consoling, and absolutely no interaction or involvement with their personal lives. Montgomery’s very first experience delivering the bad news is horrifying and startlingly impactful – the pregnant girlfriend and elderly mother have no idea what the two solemn soldiers have come to herald, and Will is unprepared for the ensuing hysterics.

The army requires men of stature – those that won’t fall to pieces – to be the harbingers of such troubling information. Will’s experiences continue to be trying, but he gains some relief with heavy metal, alcohol, and gradual bonding with Stone, a man who is eventually unable to harbor his emotions. Since the first instruction was to abstain from interfering with the lives of NOKs, Will inevitably breaks it. He chooses the lonely, quiet Olivia (Samantha Morton), who is left with a small child when her husband is killed in combat. Is he taking advantage of her tragedy, or is she unfaithful and not truly grieving? Will’s interest in Olivia is one of the areas in “The Messenger” that isn’t fully addressed. She’s in an unfortunate position, similarly having difficulty adjusting, but his choice seems fueled by opportunity more than relating.

At times “The Messenger” doesn’t know where it wants to go. Coping with failing relationships, tailoring lives around losses, the abrupt change in environment (returning from war is like coming from another planet), discovering purpose, and the possibility of staying in service are all approached with even attention, cluttering the plot. The editing, especially in regards to the music, is jarring at times, while the pacing moves meanderingly. At least the acting is exceptional, with Woody landing the most perfectly timed dialogue. “There’s no such thing as a satisfied customer,” muses Stone, with one of his many sardonic philosophies. “It could be worse. It could be Christmas.” The supporting roles, featuring familiar character actors like Steve Buscemi and Samantha Morton, drain some of the realism from the mourners, who probably should have been played by unknowns. But the duties of the Army’s casualty notification service makes George Clooney’s job in “Up in the Air” (firing employees for a living) look like a walk in the park.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10