The Mes­sen­ger,

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to un­nerve peo­ple. Mont­gomery and Stone are the mes­sen­gers of death, and in that busi­ness, there’s never a sat­is­fied cus­tomer.

It gets even harder for the pair to pull this off when there’s a Christ­mas wreath on the door or a baby sit­ting on the kitchen floor within. Shock, grief, anger, and dis­may greet Mont­gomery and Stone time and again. Thus it’s a sur­prise when newly wid­owed Olivia (Sa­man­tha Mor­ton), on see­ing the duo, an­tic­i­pates their pur­pose by somberly ask­ing, “How did it hap­pen?” She shakes their hands, apol­o­gizes for not invit­ing them in for cof­fee, and says, “I know this can’t be easy for you.” Then she goes off to give her ado­les­cent son the bad news.

Th­ese scenes, which take up the first half of the film, are pow­er­fully heartwrench­ing, charged with raw emo­tion and writ­ing that ap­pears un­scripted. In a re­cent in­ter­view, di­rec­tor and co-writer Mover­man ex­plained that, while th­ese scenes were re­hearsed, Fos­ter and Har­rel­son did not meet or work with the ac­tors on the other side of the door in ad­vance. All th­ese shots, the di­rec­tor main­tained, were from the first take. You can be­lieve it; there’s a sad re­al­ity to them that may leave you ei­ther breath­less with an­tic­i­pa­tion or worn down with tears. How, then, could the rest of the film pos­si­bly hold up as well?

At mid­point, the story fo­cuses on the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Mont­gomery and Stone— both wounded war­riors who don’t know whom to trust or love. Yet, like soldiers un­der fire, they re­al­ize that, like it or not, all they have is one an­other. They don’t re­al­ize that they too have come home dead. For the younger Mont­gomery, there’s still hope. If he can come to terms with what hap­pened in Iraq, and reach out to some­one— per­haps Olivia— he may find a rea­son to live again. The story fal­ters a lit­tle here as Olivia and Mont­gomery un­easily dance around each other, ner­vously aware of their mu­tual attraction and the so­cial stigma at­tached to any pos­si­ble break­down in moral con­duct be­tween them. The ac­tors are ef­fec­tive in build­ing this re­la­tion­ship. The script doesn’t judge their ac­tions, but it still plays out like a typ­i­cal soap opera.

Also, the film holds back on let­ting us see our pro­tag­o­nists to­tally ex­posed (though there are sev­eral nude scenes) in that Mover­man shows re­straint when it comes to the un­der­cur­rent of vi­o­lence within our two heroes. At one point, while on a week­end break, Mont­gomery and Stone, both seething with pain, en­counter a trio of an­tag­o­nis­tic youths aching for a fight. It would have pro­vided au­di­ence re­lief from the ten­sion to watch the en­su­ing brawl— even if the soldiers got the worst of it— but Mover­man pulls away just as the first punch is thrown.

The act­ing can’t be faulted. Fos­ter ( 3:10 to Yuma; Pan­do­rum), is ca­pa­ble of pro­ject­ing emo­tions that turn on a dime with the sub­tlest change in ex­pres­sion. He plays Mont­gomery as a man who un­der­stands that the shrap­nel from the war is hit­ting fam­ily mem­bers at home, which leads him to de­vi­ate from the script and im­pro­vise. Dark and cold on the in­side, his char­ac­ter projects warmth to those who are hurt­ing more than he is.

It’s a win­ning role for Har­rel­son. Stone is a rake, a jerk, and a mar­tinet when it comes to fol­low­ing the rule book. He’s also lone­some, en­vi­ous, and un­cer­tain, and Har­rel­son’s un­afraid to re­veal the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of a man who died in­side long be­fore he was sent overseas. The sup­port­ing cast, in­clud­ing some of the lesser­known ac­tors who play re­ceivers of tragic news, is top-flight as well.

The Mes­sen­ger of­fers few easy an­swers as it ze­ros in (un­com­fort­ably at times) on the con­se­quences of war — even for those out­side the com­bat zone.

Nei­ther shocked nor awed: Sa­man­tha Mor­ton

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