The funeral march from Chopin's second piano sonata is a very sad piece of music. In The Messenger, it is also a very sick joke. When Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) is called on to notify a slain soldier's next of kin, his pager beeps a discomfitingly chirpy rendition of the familiar tune. That pager is one of many precise and telling details in a graceful film. The Messenger has a harrowing, deceptively simple story to tell about the toll that war is taking on the home front.
Tony is a mentor of sorts to Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), a young army mechanic and injured Iraq war hero. In the last months of his service, Will, who's in New Jersey recovering from his wounds, is given the unpleasant task of knocking on doors and telling families their loved ones have been killed. Tony has mastered the job and gives Will numerous guidelines. Don't park in front of the house. Don't use the doorbell, in case the chime is inappropriately cheery. Above all, don't touch the next of kin - or, as the men crisply say, the N.O.K.
The notification scenes are grimly fascinating. The relatives mostly react with wailing grief, or, in the case of a father played by Steve Buscemi, rage and violence. "Why aren't you dead?" he screams at Will and Tony. The exception is a young mother named Olivia (Samantha Morton), who is almost emotionless as she hears the news, then awkwardly shakes the messengers' hands. "She's banging someone," Tony observes afterward, clinically noting the man's clothes on the clothesline.
Will is fascinated by Olivia, and he inserts himself into her life - following her to the mall, repairing her car and finally, yes, touching the N.O.K. It's grossly inappropriate, but Will is damaged, grievously traumatized by what happened to him in Iraq, which he describes in a quiet, searing sequence. Foster, who is in nearly every scene, doesn't hit many different notes with this controlled performance, and for this unhappy soldier that's appropriate. He reacts to events either with wariness or, late at night, alone in his grubby apartment, wall-punching fury.
Harrelson, meanwhile, has less screen time but is unforgettable. He gives a marvelously funny and poignant performance as the aging warrior Tony, a recovering alcoholic who still doesn't shy from hell-raising. At times fiercely angry, Tony also can be smirking and droll, as when he theorizes that the problem with the war in Iraq is that there is too much religion. "No one's getting laid," he laments.
The Messenger is, like The Hurt Locker, an Iraq War film that's narrowly focused and not much given to philosophizing. I wonder whether Iraq will eventually yield sweeping cinematic statements akin to the epic howls of Vietnam movies like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter. Perhaps not. Vietnam was a national trauma, a shared anguish. As The Messenger reminds us all too clearly, the anguish of Iraq mostly has fallen to a relatively small group of people: volunteer service members and their families.