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
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
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.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam