“In case you feel like offering a hug or something, don’t.”

Oscar season is upon us, so The Messenger is a movie you’re probably going to hear about more and more. Oddly enough, it won’t be from commercials, as this seems to be one of those movies that just shows up one day. Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson play Will Montgomery and Tony Stone, two casualty notification officers for the US Army. While being taught the ropes of his new job, Foster becomes involved with the wife of a fallen soldier.

The first few minutes set the movie up to be very different than it turns out to be. When they first meet, Foster and Harrelson walk around, silent and brooding, generally pissed off. Foster feels as if landing this assignment is some sort of punishment, and Harrelson is more than happy to oblige his preconceptions. Slowly, they learn to work with each other, and Foster discovers what it is he thinks Harrelson is doing wrong.

How is this different from what I was expecting? I thought I was in for two hours of these guys yelling at women and hitting things. I was wrong. What develops is a friendship that is probably one of the most real we’ve seen on screen in a long time. Both characters have their shortcomings and help each other through a job that in many ways is worse than the war itself. You really expect that to happen, but the movie moves into it a lot faster than you’d expect.

What worked for me: The relationship between Foster and Harrelson. After just seeing him in Zombieland, man, Harrelson’s got range. Foster’s the star – and really leads here like he hasn’t done before – but you keep your eyes on Harrelson. Once he’s able to break through the front he’s put up, you get a good look at how these guys keep their heads while doing what is undoubtedly one of the worst jobs on the planet. The movie’s funny when you aren’t expecting it to be, and more touching than you’d think.

What didn’t work for didn’t exactly not work for me, if that makes any sense. Foster’s relationship with Samantha Morton was underplayed. Which is good or bad depending on how you look at it. There’s nothing inappropriate about it, but then again, there’s nothing inappropriate about it. Because of that, it never really feels like it’s a dilemma that Foster’s facing. And that sort of non-problem translates to the rest of the movie. Foster hates the job. He and Harrelson fight. They both have conflicting feelings about duty and the price you pay for doing it. And in the end, things just sort of work out. At the risk of overstating it, it’s a little anticlimactic.

The Messenger is easily one of the best movies of 2009. A nice addition to a Fall that, with the exception of just a few movies, hasn’t been incredibly memorable. With the release of The Road, Up in the Air, and Sherlock Holmes, that may change in the next month, but we’ll see. In the meantime, this one is definitely worth your time. Foster and Harrelson make you want to feel the pain they feel, if only to understand it. A

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