Movie Review: The Messenger

2009. Starring Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson. Directed by Oren Moverman.

My Dad was fond of an old country song, “The Letter Edged in Black.” He recalled that, back in the day when all communication, however urgent, relied on mail service, letters bearing bad news were enclosed in envelopes marked with black around the edges. The intent was to warn that the message inside was not routine correspondence, and that the recipient should be prepared to hear the worst. The shock of learning some things without warning would only amplify the message.

The next of kin (“NOK” in military parlance) of service members are prepared more than most to hear such news, but the shock is handled differently. When combat hero Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is assigned to the Casualty Notification Unit to complete his final months of service, he views it as a bit of an insult. Delivering bad news, adhering to a stiff and cold script and watching the impact on loved ones resulting from his visit seems like a lousy chore to someone who has seen as much as he has. His partner, Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), trains him to exercise detachment, stick to the script and avoid touching anyone. Speak only to the primary next of kin, don’t park out front, and don’t wait around, drawing attention. His professionalism masks a detachment from his emotions, necessary not only to the successful notification of death in the line of service, but to his own well-being.

The Casualty Notification officers encounter anger, resentment, nausea and deadened shock, reactions that the seasoned Captain Stone warns his protege to expect. But, as The Messenger takes its time to show us, they are not prepared for the reactions they experience themselves, particularly when they make an official visit to a new widow (a surprising Samantha Morton) and the heartbreak and grief manage to get around everyone’s defenses.

The Messenger shows a new viewpoint on war that is devastating but not divisive. The cold violence that the officers deliver to the loved ones waiting back home must be an awful burden to bear, but they always speak on behalf of the Secretary of the Army and repress both pain and empathy in the name of military professionalism. Alcohol occasionally seeps inside the Captain’s self-defense, while the distance of an ex-girlfriend wears away at the young Staff Sergeant, putting him in a dangerous situation with the new widow whose life he’s just destroyed.

“I think they ought to show every damn funeral on TV, live,” Harrelson’s character growls at one point, and that’s the argument I’ve tried to make. Pretending that the deaths don’t represent real lives cut short, that the mission doesn’t result in orphans and grieving parents, makes war too easy. And makes all of us too willing to ignore the network of pain behind every fallen soldier. There are letters edged in black being delivered today, somewhere in America, and we should be witness when that bad news is delivered.