After a terse, unsentimental first third, The Messenger drifts into the weeds when Ben Foster teases the audience with a will-he-or-won’t-he pass at grieving wife Samantha Morton and comes to a full stop when Woody Harrelson and Foster turn the movie into attenuated psychotherapy. Before that though, first-time director Oren Moverman (he cowrote Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There) shrewdly uses Harrelson’s talent for jus’-folks empathy and Foster’s for bottled fury. As members of the Army’s Casualty Notification unit who have to continually enact the shadowplay that constitutes the rules of engagement for this most grievous of domestic duties, they act as if they’re one visit away from nervous collapse; Harrelson’s insistent chatter about chicks and uneven embrace of teetotalism rubs against Foster for nearly an hour. Moverman’s pedestrian visual sense can’t purge the air of manipulation; we know that sooner or later one of these guys will blow their top like Alec Guinness in The Bridge Over the River Kwai: how devotion to duty erodes one’s humanity, and so on. But like that other good “Iraq movie” The Hurt Locker, maybe it took post-2006 “surge” politics to create a context in which films concentrating on behavior and mannerism suddenly seems the proper way to respond to Iraq (The Messenger and The Hurt Locker’s austerity make Rendition and Stop-Loss look like the Crash of Iraq War films). If Overman and Kathryn Bigelow are liberals, at least their movies have little patience for proselytizing — for now at least. I can imagine Bigelow succumbing to the agitprop temptation (Overman’s talent is more verbal).
The Messenger isn’t as harrowing as The Hurt Locker; I never felt as if anything was at stake. But it’s honest. As a scene with a hammy Steve Buscemi (as a devastated father) proves, Overman gets hokey when forced to film set pieces designed for Academy Award consideration, but he’s terrific at bits of business. The scene I remember most isn’t even a scene; it’s a cutaway to a busy playground that settles into terrified silence as the parents watch Foster and Harrelson grimly walking to the next household to which they must deliver bad news.