Film Review: The Messenger

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PARK CITY -- Offering another perspective on the Iraq war's impact on returning soldiers, "The Messenger" gingerly probes wounds that are still healing with admirable empathy and insight. This delicate subject matter could be a tough sell in a marketplace still averse to accounts of the conflict, but with a competition slot at the upcoming Berlin International Film Festival following its Sundance world premiere, the film could see a pick-up from a dedicated distributor attuned to the careful handling required for a theatrical release.

Back in the U.S. after surviving a roadside attack in Iraq, Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is still recovering from his injuries when his commander assigns him as an Army Casualty Notification Officer, charged with informing next of kin regarding military deaths. He's teamed with the more experienced Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a by-the-book career soldier and recovering alcoholic who quickly shakes Montgomery down and puts him right into action.

Facing relatives of the deceased is a stressful and unpredictable assignment, leaving Montgomery frequently unprepared for families' reactions. Stone backs him up, though, and gradually the junior officer develops his own style, which Stone finds too empathetic.

Off duty, neither has much in the way of a social or family life -- Montgomery still sleeps with his now-engaged ex-girlfriend (Jena Malone) and Stone's intermittent relationships amount to little more than one-night stands -- and as a result the men gradually begin spending more free time together. So when Montgomery begins getting emotionally involved with a slain soldier's widow (Samantha Morton), the situation simultaneously challenges his loyalty to both Stone and the Army.

Already an experienced screenwriter, debut director Oren Moverman's intense two-hander endeavors to focus exclusively on the home front and perhaps avoid the quagmire of issues surrounding other Iraq-related films. But the war is constantly in the background, from Montgomery's combat wounds and frequent episodes of PTSD-induced rage to Stone's remorse over never having seen action.

To its credit, Moverman and co-writer Alessandro Camon's script effectively foregrounds the characters rather than their circumstances as they grope toward some form of redemption. Foster and Harrelson (remarkably aggro and bulked up) are well-paired, shading distinct zones of the military mindset, but the consequences of Montgomery's inappropriate relationship with Morton's widow character never gain much traction, making her almost an afterthought compared to the primacy of the men's complex relationship.

Moverman adopts a functional directing style that gives full rein to the actors' impressive performances, although the widescreen image draws unflattering attention to some of the more subjective Steadicam sequences.
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