It seems like a simple and unremarkable title until we discover the type of message that the title character has to deliver in this film. The first half of THE MESSENGER focuses largely on the visits made by Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) and Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) to the houses of the families of fallen soldiers. The purpose of these visits is to give the tragic news of the death of a son, husband, etc. On plenty of occasions, we've seen in movies and TV shows that scene in which two soldiers get out of a car and start walking towards a front porch, and the audience already knows what's going to happen. It's surprising that it wasn't until now that a movie was finally made about something with so much potential for dramatic intensity.
If one reads that THE MESSENGER is all about these two soldiers going to houses of dead soldiers, one might think that the movie will not only be depressing but that it may also become frustratingly repetitive. Fortunately, that's not the case with THE MESSENGER because, surprising as it may seem, each visit to a family member's house is totally different. Each situation and each emotional response is at least a little different from the one that preceded it. What I appreciated about this is not just the fact that it makes the film effective in its depiction of emotional pain, but in that it portrays the diversity of America and the way in which war affects EVERYONE regardless of who they are.
Curiously, during its last act, THE MESSENGER veers off from its titular enterprise and starts focusing more on the reflections made by these two soldiers on their experiences when they were in the war zone. You would think that this segment of the film would be even better, but truth be told, it's not nearly as dramatically effective as the scenes that involved them visiting the particular houses. There's a moment in which they're both sitting on a couch, and Will opens up to Tony about how he truly feels about people seeing him as a "hero," but the moment carries far less emotional heft than it should. The problem is more due to the script than to the performances, though. Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson are both in top form. This is a much less showy role for Foster than the three he had in 2007 with 3:10 TO YUMA, 30 DAYS OF NIGHT and ALPHA DOG, but he's every bit as good at being subdued as he is at being over-the-top. Harrelson's performance here, combined with his unforgettably funny work in ZOMBIELAND, leaves no doubt in one's mind that the guy has had a great year.
While its final scenes don't work nearly as well as what came before them, the scenes in which the "messages" are delivered are certainly more than good enough to make this recommendable, particularly because two of the "recipients" are played by Steve Buscemi and Samantha Morton. The concept of having to cope with death is one we see extremely often in film, but the fact that it's given to us here in the context of a REAL, modern situation that we're all well aware of makes it have far more emotional potency, and for having these scenes be so believable and expertly rendered, the film deserves a lot of credit.