Casualties, as Capt. Anthony Stone (Woody Harrelson) tells his trainee, Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), in “The Messenger,” are soldiers who are maimed, wounded, missing. Lots of things. But for their outfit, the Army's Casualty Notification service, casualty means killed. “Say ‘killed' or ‘died'” to avoid confusion, Stone warns Montgomery during one of their training sessions, conveying the story of a colleague who convinced a grandmother that her grandson had switched sides after telling her the soldier was “no longer with us.”
It's early in the picture, but you can tell Stone has done his job many times. He warns not to park out front, but down the street. People have a good idea what it means when they see two well-dressed military men walk up, and he doesn't want the designated recipient of their news to hear them park the car. “A knock is ominous,” he tells the younger Montgomery, but a doorbell can be too alarming or cheerful. God help you if you push a bell that chimes a song, he warns. Best to knock.
The point of these early moments in “The Messenger” is to show there are difficult practical matters to consider when telling people that their son, daughter, husband or wife has been killed in a foreign land, that they'll never see them alive again. There really is no good way, just the least bad way. That's why, when one new widow (Samantha Morton) thanks the two and acknowledges how difficult their job must be, the men are taken aback. The act even leads Montgomery into a friendship with the woman.
“The Messenger” is best, however, when going over the details of casualty notification, which comes with a manual. It offers a curt, clear script to go along with Stone's numerous admonitions for avoiding problems: Do not tell anyone but the designated next of kin; if the next of kin isn't there, leave and come back later; do not touch the next of kin.
As the movie quickly demonstrates, the best training is frequently defeated by reality. On Montgomery's first assignment, a young pregnant woman answers the door, and asks if her boyfriend is in trouble again. She invites the two men into a drab, dark, row-house living room, casually chatting about her dead boyfriend. Stone and Montgomery can't tell her why they are there, only stand and awkwardly repeat their orders to wait for the mother. Then she appears, exploding in a storm of grief. She screams at Stone to shut up, slaps him, but he stalwartly recites the script.
Scenes like this are tough stuff, but as long as “The Messenger” relies on them it's a fascinating and moving account of a task that usually happens out of sight. The movie actually inspires a morbid curiosity whenever Stone and Montgomery get an assignment. How will the next of kin react? How will Stone and Montgomery? Everyone takes the news differently, and almost never very well.
“The Messenger” was directed and co-written by Oren Moverman, who co-wrote the ambitious but miscalculated 2007 Bob Dylan film, “I'm Not There,” with director Todd Haynes. In his directorial debut, he gives too much attention to the relationship between Montgomery and Morton's characters, and some of the extended scenes between Stone and Montgomery outside their work, like trying to forget their troubles through partying, ride off a cliff. There are also some minor casting problems, though not with the excellent leads. Foster, who lit up the screen as Anton Yelchin's psychotic older brother in “Alpha Dog,” brings a more constrained intensity to Montgomery, a vulnerable war hero. Harrelson gives Stone a similar composition, calloused by experience. Both are grim and determined in their work, but not robots.
For some reason, however, Moverman felt the need to populate the roles of the next of kin with fairly well-known character actors, which causes unnecessary breaks in the tension when Stone and Montgomery knock on a door and it's answered by someone the audience recognizes — such as Steve Buscemi. What is Steve Buscemi doing in this movie?
It's one of the few upsetting questions left unanswered. Everyone has a good idea what it means when men like Stone and Montgomery knock at the door. “The Messenger” also shows what it means to them. (R) 105 min. HHHHI