There’s something slightly odd about a former Israeli army officer making a movie about broken American veterans of the war in Iraq. But that’s just what The Messenger is. The film is Oren Moverman’s directorial debut and is currently in competition at Sundance.
The story follows Will (Ben Foster), a decorated war hero that came home with a purple heart for saving some friends during an attack in some nameless Iraqi city. Although he’s sent back to the states, he still has a few months left of service. His superior assigns him to the task force in charge of informing the next of kin of soldiers’ deaths within twenty four hours of the event. This is a two man job, and he’s partnered up with Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), who is clearly damaged goods (even though he’s never seen any real action). He’s in quasi-recovery from alcoholism and does things by the book. The two form an awkward bro-mance and go from family to family informing them of the worst news they’ll probably receive. Will becomes particularly affected by Olivia (Samantha Morton), whom he informs her husband is dead.
The standout quality of the film is the performances of the three leads. Foster takes the role to heart and clearly becomes the product of a war gone wrong. Harrelson also had his work cut out for him, but manages to play a broken man excessively well. Morton’s performance was much subtler (and smaller), but was just as powerful. It’s wildly entertaining watching Will and Olivia enter into a sexless, awkward relationship that both fight because, well, her husband just died, and he’s the soldier that informed her of the fact. The conflict is never really discussed, but the actors manage to speak volumes without really saying much.
Moverman’s direction isn’t really that impressive. Without the talented cast, the movie would have been extremely flat. Partly to blame for this is the script that Moverman co-wrote with Alessandro Camon (the relatively successful producer responsible for Fur). There was also an uncomfortable amount of humor that Will and Tony find in their job. Sure, there are tense moments that feel just right, but it feels far too uncomfortable laughing at such a solemn responsibility. There are some great appearances by people like Jena Malone, Steve Buscemi, and more. Overall, The Messenger has its moments, but mostly is just another mediocre film about the Iraq war (and who needs another one of those?).