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'The Messenger' is a flawed yet vital war film

The Messenger (R)

3 stars out of 4<.b>

The second war in Iraq has spawned many movies, most of them bad and almost all political in nature. "The Messenger" barely mentions the Iraq War by name and, like another stunning 2009 film ("The Hurt Locker"), it takes no stance on the conflict.

This is the story of two men who have to carry out a task many people would consider far more harrowing, dangerous and emotionally devastating than actual warfare. They're the ones who must deliver the worst of all possible news to the next of kin of recently deceased soldiers. It's hard to imagine a more emotionally taxing and thankless job.

Because of the as-it-happens nature of war in the high-tech information age, the Armed Forces have had to change the way they notify the families of the departed. As soon as a soldier dies, two-men teams race the clock to deliver the news before it is leaked out on the Internet or worse, posted on Facebook or Twitter.

Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) follows the revised Army directives to the letter. In his pat, emotionless speech, Stone announces the death, informs a specific family member that a grief counselor will be contacting them shortly and then leaves. He also has a strict no-touch/no-small talk policy that he underscores strongly during his first meeting with new partner Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster).

For reasons (wisely) never revealed, Montgomery is assigned this duty after suffering a disfiguring facial injury in Iraq. He has three months left on his tour and approaches his final assignment with a business-like, get-it-over-quick attitude. Neither he nor the recovering alcoholic Stone is fond of the other and that seems to suit both men just fine.

Each of the five families the men contact during the film has a different reaction to the men's visits and each is uniquely heart-wrenching. One wails inconsolably, one freezes up in denial while another politely offers the messengers refreshments. We're never afforded the time to get to know them, which is exactly the point. The last thing the Army wants is for their officers to become someone's new best friend.

Things get sticky when one of Stone and Montgomery's visits is met with violent rage from an angry father (Steve Buscemi). The man spits on Montgomery, who is hustled away by Stone before he can react. The Buscemi character shows up in a later scene and it is arguably the most moving passage in the emotionally draining film.

A veteran of the Israeli army, first-time director Oren Moverman obviously knows his material well and in tandem with co-writer Alessandro Camon, he is able to draw out a wealth of emotions from the characters in a manner that is never forced or feels manipulative. The hand-held camera work and near-absence of a backing score add a great deal to the desired tension.

The movie loses its footing somewhat with the second act introduction of Olivia (Samantha Morton), a woman whose non-reaction to her loss speaks volumes. While still somewhat involved with another woman (Jena Malone), Montgomery drops his guard and breaks the job's cardinal rule. While veering the story off course with this romantic subplot will appeal to some, it detracts from the overall desired wallop the movie otherwise delivers.

"The Messenger" is a flawed yet vital film that gives us a glimpse into a world we'll never see on the evening news and hopefully never have to experience in real life. It also makes it clear that when a son or daughter goes off to war, their families -- whether by choice or not -- have to metaphorically fight and often die in their battles with them. It is quite possible to be dead and still breathing. (Oscilloscope Pictures)