The Messenger. Starring Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton and Jena Malone. Directed by Oren Moverman. Rated MA15+ (strong themes and sex scene). 113 mins.
Repatriated from Iraq after being wounded in action, US Army staff sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) finds himself assigned for the remaining few months of his enlistment to the casualty notification team in New Jersey. Thus begins an engrossing and frequently moving film about an overlooked function of military operations.
Casualty notification teams do what, until the war in Vietnam, was traditionally accomplished by telegram: they deliver the news to next-of-kin that their sons, husbands, daughters, wives have been killed in battle.
The young soldier protests that he has no training in grief counselling or the like, but that is not important to the army; his role is merely to follow the procedure by the book, deliver the rehearsed speech (“the Secretary of War asked me to pass on his condolences on your tragic loss …”) and depart the scene.
Montgomery is teamed with Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a career soldier who will train him. Stone stresses that their job is “sacred” but he is not above a little mordant humour by putting Chopin’s Dead March as a ringtone on his beeper and observing that in their line of work there is no such thing as a satisfied customer.
Above all, Stone emphasises, “do not touch the NOK”, by way of saying that they can have no emotional involvement in the work they do. Montgomery instinctively wants to console a tearful widow with a hug, and is perplexed by Stone’s impassivity. “They’re human beings,” he pleads at one point, “they’re just people.”
The instances of Montgomery and Stone doing their job are extremely well written and well acted, portraying a range of emotionally charged reactions. There are tears, of course, but the two messengers are variously insulted, assaulted, spat upon, cursed and politely thanked. They have no idea what reception awaits them when they knock on a door. On one occasion, they even find the newly widowed woman living with another man who did not know she was hiding a husband in the military.
The changing relationship between the two soldiers doing a difficult job, one a sensitive lad the other a bit of a redneck, is the centrepiece of the film, but there are also sub-plots about Montgomery discovering that his longtime girlfriend Kelly (Jena Malone) has ditched him and is about to marry one of his friends, and the halting, awkward developing relationship between Montgomery and the gentle widow and mother Olivia (Samantha Morton), one of the NOKs whose loneliness is palpable.
Well written by Oren Moverman and Alessandro Camon and directed by Moverman, it is splendidly acted by all concerned (the always excellent Steve Buscemi has a small role as a father who loses a son) and for the most part it has the ring of truth. Credulity is stretched by one scene in which Montgomery and Stone, having been out drinking, crash Kelly’s formal engagement party dressed in army fatigues and covered in grime, but overall it is an impressive, poignant film.
For cynics who like to scrutinise the final credits crawl, The Passenger sees fit to acknowledge a new craft among contributions to film-making: parking assistants. Ye gods, what next?!
Madman Out November 11
Mr Jim Murphy is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.