Oren Moverman’s directorial debut, The Messenger (written by Moverman with Alessandro Camon), begins with decorated Army officer Ben Foster assigned to spend his last three months of service working in Casualty Notification, which is a thankless task, because as his new partner Woody Harrelson explains, “There’s no such thing as a satisfied customer.” Foster and Harrelson have to be ready at a moment’s notice to put on their dress greens and express the Secretary Of The Army’s condolences, racing to reach loved ones before cable news or YouTube does. The Messenger is partly about the new wrinkles in an old mission, and partly about how some aspects of military life never really change.
Yet Moverman seemingly can’t decide whether he wants to make a low-key character sketch about soldiers stationed stateside (a kind of 21st century The Last Detail), or A Movie About The War. Much of the first half of The Messenger is dedicated to illustrating different awkward reactions to terrible news. Steve Buscemi plays a father who freaks out and spits in Foster’s face, after too-pointedly noting the tree in his yard that’s the same age as his now-dead son. Samantha Morton plays a wife who seems to take the news graciously, until Foster catches her at the mall yelling at a pair of Army recruiters. Many scenes in The Messenger feel merely illustrative, not designed to develop characters and story so much as to make the point, over and over, that the home front can be as harrowing as the front lines.
The actors do what they can with sketchy material. Harrelson continues his welcome late-career shift into character-actor mode, playing another salty badass with a sweet center. Foster is even better, playing a rattled combat veteran who can’t sleep at night without the blare of noisy rock music. But the actors can only make so much out of one scene after another of grief and rage. One parent of a casualty throws up, another screams, another gets the news via a translator because he doesn’t speak English, and so on. And Foster and Harrelson always stick to the Army’s orders about what to say and how to behave. After a while, The Messenger starts to feel equally dogged about following a pat script.