You’ve watched these scenes before, awful in their heartbreak, most memorably in Saving Private Ryan: Steven Spielberg frames an army mother in silhouette as uniformed men approach her doorway, solemnly removing their caps. She sinks to her knees, the news too hard to bear.
The Messenger focuses specifically and tenderly on these moments, and on the stern but damaged men who perform such duties on a daily basis. The reactions don’t go as smoothly as with Mrs. Ryan. A bitter father can’t believe his daughter has married “that greaseball” until they both hear the KIA report, and he can only hold her while she screams. Wives fall ruined; a gardening dad (Steve Buscemi, in a powerful cameo) can only spit his rage: “Why aren’t you dead?”
And maybe they are a little dead. Notification trainee Will (Foster) served heroically in Iraq but seems to have left a bit of his soul behind. His new boss, an imposing mountain of a man, Captain Stone (Harrelson, at his finest), hides his own loneliness behind the procedures of proper respect and a script they have to read. Directed by a newcomer, Oren Moverman (the cowriter of Todd Haynes’s Bob Dylan fantasia, I’m Not There), the movie does an uncommonly sensitive job probing the psychologies of blocked men, less so the urges of a widow who needs more than comforting words. (As played by the great Samantha Morton, you’ll forgive this obvious plot trajectory.) Though it feels a little too indie-ish in its wallowing misery, The Messenger signals the start of strong year-end work.—Joshua Rothkopf
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