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Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2010

The Messenger

Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster knock on death’s door

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Imagine the dryness in your mouth, the knot rising from your stomach and the stiffness of your tongue when knocking on a stranger’s door to tell them their son or daughter, husband or wife, is dead. Your starched green Army dress sends a signal. If the stranger is next of kin to someone in the service, they might already know the content of your message before you can say, “The secretary of the Army has asked me to inform you…”

At least in The Messenger, the soldiers assigned this unhappy task are given no training. It’s not desirable duty. Only three months remaining on his enlistment, Sgt. Montgomery (Ben Foster) tries to beg off his assignment to a “casualty notification team.” He has returned from one of America’s wars as a decorated hero, but a little damaged. The last thing he wants is to be the angel of death to the families of men like those with whom he served. But there is no choice. Montgomery is placed under Capt. Stone (Woody Harrelson), a bullet-headed cynic and Army lifer who lays down a strict set of rules: Stick to the script; don’t use weasel words like “passed” or “lost”; call the dead soldier by name; do not touch the NOK (next of kin)—not even a handshake or a hug. Got that, sergeant?

The responses from the families they visit are heartbreaking and varied. A mother pleads with Stone and Montgomery as if they can restore her loved one to life; a father cusses them out and wishes they had died instead; another breaks into tears, hearing the Army secretary’s greetings in Spanish through a translator. One woman (Samantha Morton) accepts their message with good grace. Soon enough, Montgomery begins a diffident courtship.

Written and directed in sober tones by Oren Moverman, The Messenger is a movie built around conversations, especially between Montgomery and Stone, who gradually lose their antagonism and bond in the realization that they have more in common with each other than anyone else. Foster’s character is a study in restraint coming unglued at all ends, while Harrelson’s Stone steals many scenes through his angry outbursts. Both men are acutely aware that the bottom line of any war, regardless of the speeches and flag waving and yellow ribbons, is that people will die. In The Messenger, the gap between those who have stared at death and the uncomprehending civilians back home has not been so sharply drawn by any director since William Wyler and his 1946 meditation on those who served in World War II, The Best Years of Their Lives.

Add to the review of The Messenger The Messenger opens Feb. 12 at the Downer Theater.

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