A good friend and I were recently discussing, with some astonishment, the fact that solid movies about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—or, rather, the people who fought there—have had little box office impact, no matter how good the reviews. Of course, we were able to acknowledge that people simply don’t want to be reminded of what’s happening to their fellow Americans while we continue to lead relatively normal, if more cash-strained, lives. There are several scenes, both chilling and heartbreaking, in the great The Best Years of Our Lives, in which the returning servicemen try, with varying degrees of success, to fit back into their pre-war, civilian lives. The loss of commonality among lovers, spouses and family, the delicate yet permanent rupture that separates civilians from those who have served, permeates Years, and in some ways provides a backdrop for The Messenger.
Co-written (with Alessandro Camon) and directed by Oren Moverman, The Messenger follows Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) and Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), members of the military’s Bereavement Notification Team, as they crisscross a military town and its environs (actually, Fort Dix) to inform next of kin that their loved ones have been killed in action. While war hero Montgomery, recently returned from a harrowing tour of duty in which he suffered grievous wounds, has doubts as to his capacity to provide counseling, Desert Storm vet Stone assures him that their job ends at a recital of the facts of death; a grief counselor follows up with the “NOKs.” One might think that a series of notifications would prove redundant, but just the opposite proves true. Stone and Montgomery never know how their news will be met, or even if they’ll be allowed entry to homes whose inhabitants shirk from the cold hard reality of why they’re there.
As the movie progresses, the relationship between the two men evolves slowly from senior officer/junior officer to a sort of friendship. Stone, so rigid and by-the-book on the job, is much more of a mess after hours, as he struggles to stay sober and flirts with anything wearing a skirt. His late-night calls to Will interrupt the latter’s attempts to stop remembering by pounding beers and blaring headbanger music. The military calls Will a hero, an honor he heartily discounts, and when he finally opens up to Stone about his experiences, it’s done without drama or pathos, but, in a manner befitting a bereavement notification officer, straightforward and to the point. Harrelson has never been stronger, and Foster manages the fine line between still-vulnerable young man and efficient military expert. Both are bound, in fact maybe even preserved, by their military training and discipline; it’s what keeps them from cracking under pressure, from completely going off the deep end.
Much has been written about a scene in which the two men confront Olivia (Samantha Morton), a widow whose chief concern is that they get off her lawn before her son gets home. As they intone the script, she shakes their hands, then proceeds to ask routine questions such as whether she should notify her in-laws. Her crisp, if nervous, efficiency is almost shocking, until you remember that scores of other young neighborhood moms, silently thankful that they’ve been passed over, are watching from their own yards, and that suddenly, Olivia isn’t one of them but a war widow, somebody marked by Death. While this scene is, in fact, notable, it pales in comparison to two later ones in which Montgomery, somewhat guiltily drawn to her, joins Olivia in her kitchen in what may be a moment of tentative foreplay, and later, in which the two meet on her front lawn to discuss what’s next. Each is almost like a ballet, in which the participants are compelled toward each other and yet maintain a precarious distance, nervous about what they could be getting into—and we can see why. They’ve both been on the receiving end of the worst that war can give.