Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is discharged from the hospital, a war hero, the details of which will not be revealed until the end (naturally). With three months left, he is assigned to go to the homes of men killed in action and break the news to their families. His superior is Lt. Stone, played by Woody Harrelson. a lonely man who tries to get close to Will while also keeping his emotions in check. Samantha Morton is the widow whose reaction to the news of her husband's death affects Will deeply, and the two form a bond.
That's the plot. And the Morton thing is really a subplot, although the impact it has on Foster's character is significant. Really, it's a character study, as well as a meditation on the effects on war on soldiers and their families. It doesn't really take sides: it may be anti-war, but more in the general sense than Iraq specifically. War may be hell, but some people need the army. Morton has a beautiful moment in the mall where she confronts two recruiting officers after buying clothes for her husband's funeral. It's the only out-of-control moment we see from her, and it is startling -- but not melodramatic. All of the performances here are very real.
That goes, too, for the grieving families. I think we see five families besides Olivia's, and their scenes are wonderfully done. Moverman does not exploit the grieving scenes, does not give character actors their "Big Scene". In fact, we do not even see the reactions of the first family Will and Stone visit, we just hear their reactions. Actually, Moverman often keeps the focus on Ben Foster, rarely cutting away to other people or objects, even if they are referenced directly. This brilliant choice keeps us with his character, and we actually see the journey.
It's as refreshing as the long takes, wherein Moverman opts not for close-ups and inter-cutting between lines of dialogue, but medium shots with subtle movements. Moverman actually seems to be interested in watching his actors, and requires no editorial flourishes here and there to cover his tracks. There are no cuts in the crucial Kitchen Scene between Morton and Foster, allowing us to actually see both actors at the top of their game, unhindered by new set-ups or separate takes. Foster's monologue about his "hero" status has but one cut, and it is effectively done.
Harrelson should be receiving an Oscar nod Tuesday for his performance. It's not just the precursors building buzz; he's got it. Lt. Stone is a complicated, sad, surprisingly funny creation. He can turn on a dime from friend to soldier, but his eyes keep the two connected. This is a man full of regrets trying to connect while maintaining a distance.
Foster delivers his best performance to date. Will Montgomery is haunted by things he has seen. He wants to connect with the families, and it's more than just simple humanity. He tries to keep a distance, at first, from Stone, pulling away from the army even as he serves it. Foster always has crazy eyes, honestly, but he puts them to good use here. I never thought of him as a subtle actor, per se, but I may have to reevaluate that.
This is, hopefully, not the last we shall see of Oren Moverman. The Messenger is a pleasant surprise, a quiet masterpiece, a jewel in the crown of 2009 Cinema. I fyou are able to see it, I highly recommend you do so. It's a honest-to-God FILM.