You think your job`s bad? Imagine being Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), whose duty it is to deliver death notices to the families and loved ones of soldiers killed in action. With just three months of active duty left before he's honorably discharged from the service, this decorated war hero has been placed under the tutelage of Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), who's been doing this sort of thing for so long now that it has become almost - but not quite - routine. Things become complicated, however, when Will becomes romantically attracted to Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morgan), one of the young widows to whom he relates the shattering news. But the real focus is on the conflict and uneasy friendship between the by-the-book, struggling alcoholic Stone, who harbors a certain degree of guilt for never having actually served in battle, and the moody, sensitive, and slightly shell-shocked Will who's seen more blood-soaked action than he cares to think about. Yet, neither is a stereotype, for each is a complex individual dealing in his own way with the traumatizing effects of war - be it on the home front or on the field of battle.
"Less is more" is the defining principle of "The Messenger," a vivid and powerful movie that understands that there is often more drama in what is left unsaid than what is actually spoken. Everything that occurs in the film seems to happen beneath the surface, as each of the characters tries to put up a brave front even when lives and souls are being torn asunder right before their eyes. Screenwriters Oren Moverman and Alessandro Camon are not afraid to give each scene its due, even if that means letting it play out at great length or having the characters fumble in their efforts to articulate what it is they're trying to say. The emotions are raw and complex in this film, and Moverman's elegiac direction does full justice to the seriousness of the subject. He allows his characters the dignity of space, yet is never so detached from them as to render them objects of curiosity or pity. It's an impressive debut effort for the obviously gifted Moverman.
The scenes in which the two men deliver the news to the various loved ones are staged and executed brilliantly, beautifully capturing the manifold ways in which people deal with sudden tragedy. Particularly effective is Steve Buscemi's devastating cameo turn as a father who can't accept the reality of his son's death and, thus, strikes out at any convenient target as a means of channeling his rage.
Foster and Harrelson deliver breathtaking, perfectly calibrated, award-worthy performances, and they are matched every step of the way by a first-rate cast of supporting actors who never resort to grandstanding in the brief moments they appear on screen.
The one false note occurs when the two drunk officers crash the wedding party of Will's former girlfriend (played by Jena Malone, the young version of Jodie Foster in "Contact"), but it is a minor weakness in a film that earns each and every one of the tears it asks its audience to shed. And for a movie in which death plays such a central role, "The Messenger" still manages to affirm that emotional and psychological healing, though a long and painful process, can actually be achieved in the end.
Without a doubt, one of 2009's best films.