A painful, timely exploration

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 13, 2009

In modern warfare, which is more powerful: The IED or the NOK? That's the question posed by "The Messenger," a drama about a young army officer assigned to deliver death notices to soldiers' next of kin ("NOKs" in military parlance) while home recovering from injuries -- both physical and psychological -- that he suffered because of an Iraqi improvised explosive device.

Ben Foster ("Pandorum") plays the titular bearer of bad tidings, Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery, who embraces his new mission with a kind of grudging bravado. Woody Harrelson is his bullet-headed mentor, playing recovering alcoholic Capt. Tony Stone, who sets the job's strict protocol. Rule No. 1: Never touch the NOKs. You don't know when -- or how -- they might go off. Grief? Violence? Denial? Vomiting? Tony has seen almost everything. And Will is about to, too. Samantha Morton plays Olivia, a widow and mother whose strange reaction to the news of her husband's death -- part guilty relief, part genuine sympathy for Will's tough task -- makes the first dent in his armored exterior.

Though structured like many a workplace buddy movie (battle-hardened vet shows newbie the ropes, and in the process both learn about themselves), "The Messenger" feels fresh. Not to mention timely. I watched it on a day when military families across the country were waiting for news on the casualties at Fort Hood. By focusing not on war's combatants, but their families, the movie drives home the cost of war on those at home.

Harrelson makes for a believably tough-but-vulnerable Tony, a man whose work has turned him into the military equivalent of the corporate character George Clooney plays in the forthcoming "Up in the Air": an apparently heartless hired hit man who travels from company to company firing people. And Morton makes for a richly complex Olivia, whose husband was, in some ways, already dead to her before she learns that he has been killed.

But Foster's Will carries the film. As the movie opens, he's kind of dead himself, shut off from his survivor's guilt. He's unable to heal himself, because he isn't allowed to reach out and heal those most in need of healing.

Together, under the assured direction of first-time feature filmmaker Oren Moverman, these three actors tell a story that is at once hard-hitting and bizarrely gentle. Much like the toll Will's new role takes on him, the movie beats you up a little bit emotionally. It isn't easy to watch mothers, fathers, wives and children repeatedly react to the news of their loved ones' deaths.

Ultimately, though, "The Messenger" leaves its three protagonists, and its audience, a little more tender, in both senses of the word.

*** R. At Landmark's Betheda Row and Landmark's E Street Cinema. Contains obscenity, nudity, sexuality and pervasive thematic treatment of death. 105 minutes.

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