Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson are bearers of bad tidings in this Oscar-nominated drama, an Iraq story that counts the cost of the conflict on the home front.
Putting a face on the “angels of death” whose grim duty it is to notify the loved ones of soldiers lost in action, Oren Moverman’s film is a hard-hitting watch that nonetheless mines a rich vein of dark humour from a job where there are few good days at the office.
For all its tragedy, The Messenger is essentially a buddy movie that sees Foster’s wounded war hero and Harrelson’s seasoned blowhard form an unlikely bond. “It could be worse,” says Woody’s Captain Stone after another painful house call. “It could be Christmas!”
Where he insists on things going by the book, though, Foster’s Staff Sergeant Montgomery opts for a more empathic approach, not least when he becomes romantically involved with a young widow (Samantha Morton) after informing her of her husband’s death.“Fuck procedure – they’re human beings!” yells Montgomery at one point.
But he and Stone are human too and can’t help but be affected by the grief they witness and inadvertently cause. Small wonder Montgomery seeks to silence his demons with head-banging rock, or that Woody’s recovering alkie falls off the wagon.
Moverman tackles the emotive material with restraint while drawing excellent performances from his well-matched leads.
If there’s an off-note here, it’s sounded by Steve Buscemi as a bereaved father who turns on Montgomery and Stone. Somehow, this doesn’t seem the place for ‘scene-stealing’.
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It’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it in a moving look at one of the armed forces’ most harrowing details. Harrelson’s 2010 Oscar nod was well earned.