The Messenger

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Posted November 12, 2009 in Film

As an Army Casualty Notification Officer, Woody Harrelson works by a strict code of rules. When telling families that they’ve lost a loved one in Iraq or Afghanistan, he follows a protocol: no hugs, no euphemisms, no lingering and no doorbells—too risky to have a tinny “Yankee Doodle Dandy” herald your arrival. Oren Moverman’s drama, co-written with Alessandro Camon, is equally restrained. It wants to make the grand (if a little familiar) speeches about life, death and fruitless wars, but does so in terse exchanges that sometimes make this lived-in drama feel a little stiff and slogany. Still, great performances by Harrelson and newbie partner Ben Foster (Alpha Dog, Pandorum) make this a film worth slipping into awards season rotation, if only so you can holler about how their talents were overlooked. At first, Harrelson gives Foster a script to study. Problem is, death follows no script. Foster is derailed at their first assignment when the widow-to-be answers the door hugely pregnant. This new gig is as tense and unpredictable as war. The pair are slapped, blamed and insulted (“There’s no such thing as a satisfied customer,” notes Harrelson) and even when they manage to leave without a scratch, they can’t shake off the people who cry, but can’t be comforted, or who, like one young mother (Samantha Morton), seem to accept the news with a polite nod. Harrelson has accepted the limits of his role; Foster can’t reconcile it with his secret need to be a brave hero. This is Foster’s movie, and he’s once again great at playing wiry roughnecks with something to prove. He’s the only male actor I know who lets his voice screech higher and higher when he’s angry—he’s squealing and hot-headed and scary, a captured weasel who would break his own arm if he could break two of yours. But Harrelson’s calm performance anchors the film, and whenever the story drifts back to him and his cautious friendship with Foster, the flick feels true. I can see people digging it out in 20 years to understand this crucial piece of the Iraq War. For now, it’s a lesson in how a great cast can make a dry script feel fully alive.

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