Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster, in 'The Messenger'

Dir. Oren Moverman
(2009, R, 112 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

They should show military funerals live on TV, says Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson). That way death wouldn’t come as a surprise to the families of those killed in action. In a way, The Messenger performs the same function, distilling war from abstract statistics to the experiences of individual families, whom we meet at the terrible dividing line between life with their loved ones and life without. But we don’t get used to it. One death doesn’t prepare us for the next. A new wound opens as freshly as the one before it.

The best scenes are the notifications. Following a pair of Casualty Notification Officers — Captain Stone and protégé Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) — director and co-writer Oren Moverman captures the process with agonizing suspense, patiently tracing the soldiers’ visits from the tension-filled first knocks on the door to the emotional outpourings of grief, which take a different form with each family.

Part of what makes these scenes such masterpieces of sadness is knowing what we know: that we’re interrupting lives in progress about to be shattered. The officers knock on the door; we hear activity inside and dread the moment someone answers; the moment the door opens, everything changes. Harrelson and Foster play these scenes with visible pain held tightly underneath their stoic reserve. The actors playing the family members — including Steve Buscemi, Halley Feiffer, Peter Friedman, and Yaya DaCosta — are remarkably natural as they show us the devastating moment when an ordinary day turns to tragedy. Moverman expertly paces the scenes but keeps them messily authentic; they were filmed without rehearsal, and many of them in a single take, and the results feel so completely lived-in that they don’t seem staged or written or acted, but captured spontaneously like a documentary.

I like the film less when it delves into the personal lives of the main characters. After notifying one widow, Olivia (Samantha Morton), Will develops an attraction for her and they begin an uneasy dance, trying to reconcile their feelings for each other with their respect for the dead. This leads to a beautifully written and acted one-take scene in which Olivia discusses her marriage, but their relationship never reaches the point where their bond, established too quickly, outweighs the impropriety of their romance.

Other subplots include Capt. Stone’s alcoholism and the engagement of Will’s ex-girlfriend Kelly (Jena Malone) to another man; they don’t produce any bad scenes, and in fact produce some quite good ones, but they dilute the story’s effect. I think back to last year’s great HBO film Taking Chance, which dealt with a similar subject — escorting a soldier’s remains back home — but at 77 minutes was leaner and more concise. The Messenger doesn’t need its lengthy back-stories; the heart of it, about soldiers who come home and the families of those who don’t, is just about perfect.