Film of the week

The Messenger (15)

5.00

Starring: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Steve Buscemi

Death turns up at the front door in The Messenger, an exceptional and harrowing drama about the Iraq war that never strays outside the suburbs of New Jersey. Its centrepiece is a scene, reprised six times in slightly different ways. Two soldiers in severely smart military rig knock at the door of a house and, in tones of grave sympathy, tell the answering parent, or spouse, that their loved one has just been killed on active duty. The reaction to this appalling news is generally one of convulsive shock, but in the course of the film we also register accompanying degrees of rage, violence, disbelief, breakdown. The next of kin know what the arrival of these emissaries means, even if they briefly pretend not to – their son or their daughter is dead, and now something in them will die, too.

The emotional twist here is that it focuses not upon the bereaved, but on the two officers entrusted with the task of bringing the bad news. The army term for it is "casualty notification", and unlike other routine jobs it never gets any better. Staff Sgt Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), serving out his last three months of duty after injury in Iraq, has just been recruited to partner Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a career soldier who'll show him the ropes. Stone's advice is to do it by the book: recite the boilerplate ("... regrets to inform you"), don't touch or hug, don't try to be their friend. Will reads the manual and prepares to plunge into this "ocean of grief". The first one's terrible. The second one's worse. Steve Buscemi, as the father of a 20-year-old casualty, reacts with such raw anger that you almost flinch from the screen. What's so tragic is that neither party in this awful encounter is to blame. It's the guilt of war, for its cruelly random devastation of people's lives.

The first-time director Oren Moverman knows a thing or two about war, having served for four years in the Israeli military. He also knows how to use a camera, keeping close to the two officers as they walk up to the front doors – so close that the viewer seems to be a third member of the detail, cowering behind their broad backs. Both shaven-headed and goonishly bulked, Foster and Harrelson pitching up on your doorstep might be an ordeal in itself. I worried that this pair were too similar in their intense, bulging-eyed demeanour, but Moverman and his co-writer Alessandro Camon have characterised them both superbly, and the actors respond with some of their most interesting work.

Foster, given to playing psychopaths (Alpha Dog, 3.10 to Yuma), uses his twitchy, squashed-looking features with far more restraint here, his ramrod-stiff body language only unbending at home as he relaxes to the pummelling fury of thrash metal on his earphones. But something flickers in his eyes when he and Stone inform a young woman named Olivia (Samantha Morton) that the father of her young son is dead. Something in her stunned reflexive politeness at the news reaches inside Will and haunts him. It would have been easy for the film-makers to kindle a heartwarming romance between the returning veteran and the tragic widow. Instead, they bide their time and allow the performances to suggest a subtler communion of bereavement. "I missed the man he was a long time ago," she says of her late husband, recalling his war-damaged personality, and one senses Will's own anxiety that he could change in just the same way.

Harrelson's Captain Stone is another lost soul, an on-off recovering drunk who's pleased to act the soldier but, unlike Will, never saw combat. "You a headcase?" he asks Will at the start, and you see how these two hair-trigger types might provoke each other; somehow, they decide to become friends. Stone is a blowhard and a skirt-chaser, a bit like Jack Nicholson in The Last Detail, offering advice to his younger colleague but conspicuously unable to function as a regular human being himself. He probably wouldn't survive outside the army, and deep down he knows it. The film echoes the last scenes of The Hurt Locker, where Jeremy Renner's bomb tech shows how unfitted he's become to civilian life: military existence has annexed him completely. That dehumanising element is dramatised poignantly in a late scene here when Will turns up drunk at the engagement party of his ex (Jena Malone) and proceeds to get drunker. When he rises to make "a toast" the moment feels on a knife-edge, and the nervous counter-toast offered to the country's brave military seems as likely to disgust Will and Stone as defuse their aggression.

Given its sombre themes, it's rather a surprise that The Messenger is so high-spirited and companionable in mood. It makes time for a sardonic crack even in a crisis. When Will and Stone make the long walk to another front door, the neighbours of the bereaved watch them as if they were plague-carriers: "Could be worse," mutters Stone, "... could be Christmas". It's a humane and thoughtful movie about a parent's worst nightmare, and is unlikely to draw any better returns than it did in the US, where it opened more than 18 months ago. People don't want to be reminded that they're living in a country at war, and they certainly don't want to be reminded of it when they're out for a night at the cinema.

Not many were keen to catch The Hurt Locker either until it started picking up awards buzz. The Messenger presents a challenge, too, but hugely repays the effort. It will rate among the most sharply written and best-acted movies of the year.

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there