A pair of fine, powerful films were made about the conflict in Iraq this past year. While at first glance they appear different in every conceivable respect, The Hurt Locker and The Messenger actually tell two sides of the same story. Play them back to back, and what you have is as complete a picture of war’s physical and psychological toll as the cinema has achieved.
The Hurt Locker chronicles the exploits of an American bomb squad and examines the addiction soldiers can develop to combat’s drug-like adrenaline rush. The Messenger tracks the adjustment to life stateside of a young vet recovering from wounds inflicted by a roadside IED. He is Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery, and he is going through a type of withdrawal. Haunted by his experience in battle and betrayed by the girlfriend he left behind, he is a ticking time bomb.
The shape-shifting Ben Foster (3:10 to Yuma, 30 Days of Night) gives one of the year’s most nuanced performances in the role. With three months left to serve on his tour, Montgomery is assigned to the Army’s Casualty Notification Unit. A stroke of a pen switches his mission from going house to house in search of insurgents to going door to door to deliver the worst news in the world.
Woody Harrelson costars as Captain Tony Stone, a square-jawed lifer assigned to partner with Will and show him the ropes. As in The Hurt Locker, the audience is afforded an illuminating glimpse into the lifestyle, protocols and survival techniques of a military brotherhood that movies to date have left largely unexplored.
During the initial days of their relationship, Stone appears to be the consummate pro, drilling the basics into his protégé: Convey your message to the NOK (next of kin) only. Resist physical contact. Get there before the local press. Stick to the script. And by all means, park a block or so away, not in front of the home. “They hear a car park,” Stone explains, “go to the window, see two soldiers getting out. It’s just a minute of torture.”
But, while the torture can be delayed, it can’t be avoided. In the course of first-time director Oren Moverman’s film, the pair pays six visits, each of which is wrenching in its own way. Steve Buscemi is unforgettable as a shell-shocked father who spits in Montgomery’s face and growls, “Why aren’t you there? Why aren’t you dead?”
In the course of The Messenger, we also see that Harrelson’s character is not the picture of levelheadedness and control he at first seemed. The two men are on opposite trajectories. As time goes by, Montgomery slowly begins to get a foothold, thanks in part to a tentative romance with the wife of a fallen soldier (Samantha Morton). Meanwhile, Stone unravels bit by bit and begins drinking after three years of sobriety. When I think of restrained, first-rate performances, the name Woody Harrelson doesn’t generally leap to mind. It will from now on. This is an admirable bit of acting.
Don’t, whatever you do, pass on this picture because it sounds like a downer. Besides making the point that victims of wartime violence will always be found far from the battlefield, The Messenger will make you laugh. Again and again, Harrelson’s character diffuses a stress-filled situation with a killer comic line as deftly as The Hurt Locker’s Jeremy Renner dismantles an explosive device. Both films are stunningly multidimensional. Rarely have moviegoers had such surefire military options.