BECAUSE LIFE, especially in wartime, can be understatedly described as "messy," it's perhaps feasible to excuse The Messenger's disarray. The film's initial purpose is to explore the experience of servicemen tasked with notifying the next of kin when a soldier is killed. It's a rich and largely overlooked perspective, and it could, and should, have been the dedicated focus of the entire picture. Likewise, a romance between a widow and the soldier bearing news of her husband's death is also surely worthy of its own work, and an emotional soldier-to-soldier booze-fueled bender of a bro-down is much more than what some great films have been built on. But to cram all three into one film so laden with the ability to do just one really well, is to create a sense of unfinished business.
The audience's introduction to this ramblingly lifelike tale comes via Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), a tightly wound soldier finishing up a tour in Iraq that left him injured, with the added insult of his girlfriend having decided to marry someone else. Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) is the recovering alcoholic assigned to teach Montgomery the emotionless comportment of a casualty notification officer. Harrelson's plausible hardness—and the kaleidoscopic and unpredictable display of grief responses that Montgomery and Stone's visits elicit—are terrifically nerve wracking, but just as you're hooked, the movie screeches to a halt.
Enter Olivia (Samantha Morton), the aforementioned widow who serves as a colorless springboard for Montgomery's reconnection to his own empathic powers. But the film's now-contemplative speed is again disrupted in its final chapter, with a sudden, unexpectedly passionate, and totally out of character romp of shit-faced camaraderie between Montgomery and Stone, thus completing the trinity of muddled anti-climaxes.
Despite The Messenger's sheer disorganization of plot, Foster's performance is engrossing, and under-explored emotional poignancies scatter across its three arcs. It peels back the layers of stories begging to be recognized for their worthiness, and there's much to be gleaned from them—so much, in fact, that it overburdens the one film they share.