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