What does it take to be a soldier on the Casualty Notification Team, the “Angels of Death Squadron”, traveling the United States and letting spouses and parents know that someone has died while in the Army? And at what cost personally?
That’s the question underlying The Messenger, a stark film that follows decorated and troubled Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) as he joins with Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) on this detail. “Captain Stone will show you the ropes, he’s the expert” Colonel Stuart Dorsett (Eamonn Walker) promises, but what kind of man would be an expert in this task?
Stone explains the importance of clarity and sticking to the script but the entire process of notification is so abstracted that he doesn’t talk about the people receiving their tragic news, but refers to “noks” (next of kin). There are no hugs, no gestures of sympathy, no touching at all allowed.
There are the occasional moments of wry humor to relieve the intensity of the film: their pagers play a tinny funeral dirge when there’s news to be shared, and Stone delivers a amusing monologues on stopping for directions and inappropriate doorbell songs.
Still, the power of “The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deepest regret…” is overwhelming, a wave of sadness that washes over both Montgomery and us, the viewer, scene after scene. The Messenger is one of the most moving films I’ve seen in a while, well crafted and provocative, well worth a viewing.
Stone, we learn, has been married three times and is again single. Is it any surprise that someone who has become an expert on imparting the tragic news of death would be extraordinarily cynical and jaded?
Montgomery was in a relationship with Kelly (Jena Malone), but broke up when he joined the service over fear that someday someone from the Death Squad would be knocking on her door. Later he calls Kelly to say hello but hangs up when a man says “Kelly’s home, this is Alan.” Who is Alan? Montgomery holds it all in, hiding the turmoil and pain of his personal life even as we know the pressure’s building and something’s going to explode. Later she calls and leaves a message about a wedding party, telling him “don’t come, just forget about the invitation, just forget about me.” He reacts by smashing a hole in the wall of his crummy apartment.
Captain Stone (Woody Harrelson) and Sergeant Montgomery (Ben Foster)
Shaky hand-held camera work and moody lighting combine with anytown USA exteriors give the film an almost documentary feel. There’s always background noise in their cheap apartments, angry rock playing on the car stereos and train whistles in the distance, it’s never peaceful in The Messenger.
Do the recipients accept the news gracefully? Certainly not always. In one intense scene when Dale Martin (Steve Buscemi) is told that his 20yo son has been killed by Iraqi sniper fire, he confronts Montgomery and screams in his grief, “Why aren’t you over there? Why aren’t you dead? Cowards!”
Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton) demonstrates a far more pragmatic response to notification that her husband has been killed in action, calmly asking if she should contact her in-laws to let them know and looking around to ensure that her son doesn’t show up and learn the tragic news from the soldiers. “I know this can’t be easy for you” she tells them, to their surprise.
Something about Pitterson catches Montgomery’s eye, and soon he’s lurking outside her house, then keeping an eye on her as she shops at the mall. Is their bond loss? Pain? He intervenes when she starts berating soldiers trying to recruit some local high school kids and then we see him diagnosing her car problems. From there the relationship proceeds, even as Montgomery drunkenly attends Kelly’s wedding and weeps for a future not found.
The song “Home on the Range” recurs in different ways throughout the film, a poignant wish for a world where “seldom is heard a discouraging word…” and that’s ultimately the message of this powerful, moving film. How did we end up in a world where we need a Casualty Notification Team anyway?