Review: The Messenger

PLOT: A soldier (Ben Foster) returning home after a tour of duty in Iraq, is assigned to the Army’s Casualty Notification Service, under the supervision of a veteran officer (Woody Harrelson).

REVIEW: For the most part, THE MESSENGER is an extremely affecting film, reminiscent of the seventies anti-war classic, COMING HOME. While it’s probably less obviously anti-war that that flick, the message is the same; that we must never forget the human cost of war, which is very costly indeed.

This message is really driven home through the six notification scenes, with the families of the fallen soldiers sometimes reacting with tears, denial, or, in one especially harrowing scene featuring a stellar cameo by Steve Buscemi as a grief-stricken father, the threat of violence.

I honestly could not imagine a more unpleasant job than being a casualty notification officer. The toll the job takes on the soul is conveyed brilliantly by Woody Harrelson, as the veteran notification officer. After years of dealing with grieving families, he’s a total mess. A recovering alcoholic, prone to relapses, he takes solace in the opportunity for one-night stands afforded to him by the traveling nature of his job, but one gets the sense that this is a man who hasn’t had a good night sleep in years. Off-duty, he clowns around with his young partner, and tries hard to make the friend he obviously needs- but it’s almost impossible for him to relate to another human being outside his job.

That said, he’s essentially a very kind man, and he approaches his duty with equal parts stoicism, and compassion. While he’s not the kind to hand out hugs to the parents and widows, one gets the sense that this is a job that weighs heavily on his heart, making him exactly the type of person you’d hope would get a job like this. Between this, ZOMBIELAND, and DEFENDOR, Harrelson’s on a real roll these days, and his best supporting actor nomination for this film is well-deserved.

However, Harrelson’s not technically the star of THE MESSENGER. Ben Foster, whose intensity has served him well recently in films like 3:10 TO YUMA, and ALPHA DOG plays the protagonist. And therein lays one of the problems with THE MESSENGER. Don’t get me wrong, Foster’s a hell of an actor. He stole the show from both Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in 3:10 TO YUMA, which is insane, but here his role just comes off as bland opposite Harrelson, who’s giving the performance of his life. At times, Foster really goes overboard on the intensity scale, and a little subtlety would have gone a long way. He’s not bad in the film- far from it, I just wish he had underplayed the role a bit, and saved the intensity for where it counts.

I also really disliked the tacked-on romantic subplot between Foster and Samantha Morton, who plays a young woman Foster notifies of her husband’s death. There’s something really unsavory about an army messenger trying to get it on with a young widow he just happened to personally notify of her husband’s death. I can’t fathom why anyone thought it would be a good idea to include a subplot like this, and it really dulls the effect of an otherwise powerful film. Besides, there was already a romantic subplot involving Foster and a very effective Jena Malone, so this was totally extraneous to the plot.

Still, THE MESSENGER is most definitely a worthwhile film. The massage is important, and the acting from Harrelson is incredible. While I had serious problems with a good chunk of the film, it’s still an easy recommendation.

RATING: 7/10

Review: The Messenger



About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.