They're always bit players in movies, never the stars - those grim, uniformed men who knock on doors, bearing news of a U.S. soldier killed in action. One of the reasons The Messenger, the confident first film by director Oren Moverman, so engrosses is that movies have rarely explored the angst of these protagonists - officers of the Army Casualty Notification service.
Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is new to the job, assigned after being wounded in Iraq. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) is an experienced pro who has learned to distance himself emotionally from his work and tries to coach his new partner to do the same. But Will's combat experiences are too fresh and painful for him to remain detached: The explosions of grief and emotion he must constantly witness only worsen his own torment.
The Israeli-born Moverman, a military veteran who wrote The Messenger with Alessandro Camon, doesn't give you any of the expected story beats: There are no flashbacks to the horrors Will survived in Iraq, no big revelations about a shocking secret in Tony's past (even his struggle with alcoholism is handled in a straightforward manner). Instead, the filmmakers concentrate on the day-to-day reality of their characters, saddled with an unthinkable job, trying to make their way in a world of civilians who simply cannot relate to their state of mind.
Foster wisely underplays the role of the haunted, volatile Will, and Harrelson taps into an emotional darkness that he rarely gets to display. They convincingly portray the growing bond between their mismatched characters: The initial awkwardness and combative nature of their working relationship gradually gives way to a mutual respect that feels lived-in and real. As they come to understand each other, we understand them, too.
The Messenger isn't much for plot: The movie is less effective when it follows Will's tentative romance with a recently widowed mother (Samantha Morton) than when it simply observes human behavior, such as in a pair of scenes with an inconsolable man (a terrific Steve Buscemi) who learns his son has been killed and lashes out at the bearers of the tragic news. With the insight and sensitivity of an insider, The Messenger illuminates the sometimes invisible victims of war - the survivors - and a pain that is tolerated but never quite healed.
The Messenger opens Friday, Jan. 15 at the Regal Southland in Miami and the Gateway in Fort Lauderdale.