There’s enough of a stylistic resemblance between The Messenger and last year’s equally understated drama Wendy and Lucy to make one wonder if barebones neorealism is a house style of their common distributor, Beastie Boy Adam Yauch’s Oscilloscope Pictures. A keen eye for the scenic side roads and depopulated public squares of economically depressed America characterizes both films, though The Messenger forgoes the drizzly, green Pacific Northwest in favor of a dilapidated New Jersey mise-en-scène of single-story houses, budget banquet halls, and dank apartment corridors. Taken together, these neglected locales evoke a resident population with little to give beyond the daily struggle to get by, making their further victimization by outside forces during the film seem crueler.
Throughout The Messenger, temperamentally mismatched Army officers Will (Ben Foster) and Tony (Woody Harrelson) traverse the state by car to serve a series of casualty notifications to the next of kin of Iraq War dead, a process that includes standing fast in the face of unpredictable torrents of grief. The subsequent visceral exertions of raw emotion, spaced throughout the film, run the gamut from unbridled hysteria and physical aggression to silent emotional implosion and even incongruous politeness and gratitude.
Filmed in mostly unbroken takes with shaky, handheld cameras and typically preceded by highly suspenseful holds on the closed front door of those about to be notified, these largely self-contained vignettes are harrowing, the source of a font of raw emotional release that could never be otherwise captured except through a presumably invasive documentary process. Director Oren Moverman’s wisdom in using mostly unknown actors as the bereaved in these scenes is made more apparent after we see how the utilization of a highly recognizable actor in one instance leads to mixed results; the actor’s presence in what has already been established with a quasi-documentary undertone serves as a jarring reminder that one is essentially watching a series of acting exhibitions. Whether or not the general staging of notification scenes skirts the boundaries of bad taste will be decided by viewers, but the cumulative effect of these episodes is undoubtedly a searing reminder of the most inevitable outcome of war.
Though expected to operate as a synchronous two-man unit on what they perceive as a mission, Will and Tony come to be defined by their different methods in internalizing the gravity of their assignment. Career serviceman Tony, a decade older than Will and used to medicating his disappointments with a bottle, takes an alcoholic’s comfort in rule-making and routine, offering advisements against laying a comforting hand on the unpredictably distraught or communicating the purpose of the Army’s presence to any but the designated next of kin, even if their tell-tale dress uniforms make it clear. Baby-faced Will, who brattishly communicates much disagreement from behind dark sunglasses throughout, chafes under Tony’s rigid provisos from the outset and increasingly comes to regard them as useless emotional armor in the field, a situational corollary to the physical vulnerability that left him with shrapnel wounds after a roadside blast in Iraq. A natural extrovert who is unable to retract his emotional feelers in any given situation, Will is clearly sensitive to the pain he projects onto others with his news, at one point visibly steeling himself and walking robot-like to a next of kin randomly spotted in a public place. Subconsciously, he’s also an open vessel for anyone who might want to reciprocate some human feeling and it’s not long before he’s breaking the rules by forming a tenuous connection with Olivia (Samantha Morton), a newly widowed mother whose first, confused instinct when confronted by Will and Tony is to shake their hands.
Morton’s performance as the shipwrecked Olivia, which is shaded by a noticeable weight gain and a slight irregularity of speech to indicate a limited education, is given as much space and latitude as Moverman can possibly offer. Minutes-long takes are repeatedly centered on her quivering, searching countenance, with Moverman sticking with her like a documentary subject as she sniffs the air for the right word. A late scene of near-wordless communication between Olivia and Will, as they feel out the possibility of consummating their bond forged in shared pain, arguably pushes the boundary of actorly indulgence with its length and unstated purpose, but Morton is a virtuoso and never hits a recognizably false note. Still, it’s the most closed-off character, Harrelson’s fading true believer, who most succeeds in drawing us in with his asides that betray deep soul-weariness and his unembarrassed overtures of friendship to Will, such as the moment when he asks out of the blue, “Do you instant message?” Tony’s eventual inability to arrest his own slide into booze and self-pity feels less like an inevitable character defect than a cyclical byproduct of malaise, as well as an indictment of the Army’s inability to keep its good men and women invested with a purpose.
Wherever Will and Tony go throughout the film, the one consistency is that they are unwelcome, most obviously at the homes they visit, but also at the engagement reception for Will’s ex-girlfriend (Jena Malone) where they cause a scene, and at the home of a random party girl where easy sex and booze are available for a while, until it’s time to hit the road again. Add to this a random, mid-film traffic stop by a cop who seems anxious to ask them to beat it out of town, and the sum is an impression of community awareness and disapproval of their presence, as they come bearing news no one wants to hear and draw attention to problems no one wants to own. In other words, all Will and Tony really have is each other, a cold comfort though their proximity throughout wrenching circumstances is somehow enough to lay the foundation for a friendship, and perversely gives credence to the we-stick-together clichés to which Tony clings tightest. “The Army takes care of you like a family,” Tony soberly informs Will at one point, letting the statement hang in the air between them as they drive on, to the next family.