War movies about the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been a tough sell to American movie audiences. With 24-hour news coverage, there is little reason to pay $10 for a movie ticket to see a recreation on the big screen. Furthermore, during these trying economic times, audiences are seeking escapist fare to distract them from the grim economic realities of the world. There are a few exceptional films that attract notice however, most notably the excellent The Hurt Locker.

The Messenger offers a fascinating aspect of the war that most people probably don’t give much thought to. The film focuses on two casualty notification officers of the U.S. Army. These are the guys whose job is to inform the next of kin of a dead soldier that their kid or spouse has just been killed. Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster play the two soldiers. After notifying the wife (Samantha Morton) of a recently killed soldier, Foster falls for the widow, which obviously presents a serious ethical and moral dilemma.

The Messenger is a classic character study that explores the interrelationships of the characters and their inner turmoils. The writer/director, Oren Moverman, explores various facets of these characters, touching upon the effects of the war on soldiers coming home, adjusting to civilian life, the effects upon the soldier’s families, etc. Overman wisely refrains from making this into a anti-war or pro-war film. The Messenger simply gives the audience a window to look through and allows it to make up its own mind about the morals and ethics surrounding the film’s portrayals.

The cast of the film is what makes this film work. Woody Harrelson has seemed to have been out of the picture for awhile, but he has made quite a comeback this past season with Zombieland and The Messenger. He plays the perpetual bachelor solider who tries to cover up the emptiness and lack of purpose in his life with sex and alcohol.Its ironic to see Harrelson play this role given what a huge liberal environmentalist he is. It is also a testament to what a wonderful actor he is as well. However, the biggest standout in The Messenger is Ben Foster. Where the fuck did this guy come from? I really hope this film doesn’t get lost in the holiday movie shuffle because it would be a shame if this actor doesn’t receive his due recognition during the awards season. Foster brings an explosive intensity to his role that steals the screen every time you see him. He plays a recently returned soldier dealing with a girlfriend who has left him and who basically has nothing to come back to. His character seems to always be on the verge of absolutely losing it in trying to readjust to normal life. Samantha Morton and Jena Malone round out the cast and they are both wonderful, especially (and not surprisingly) Morton. Morton plays one of the spouses who has just been told her husband got killed in Iraq. For an English actress, Morton sure knows how to convincingly portray a American Army housewife. Ever since I saw her in Breaking the Waves, I have had an immense amount of respect for this actress. She is able to express and convey so much without saying a single word, which she does very well here.

As I said before, The Messenger is a character-driven film. There is a plot, but it serves more as a platform for character exploration. The first half of the movie runs at a good pace as we see how these officers do their jobs and we get introduced to the main characters. However, the second half of the film seems to lose its focus and wanders around a bit. It almost seems like Moverman felt compelled to touch upon every possible issue or conflict these people are likely to go through, but without any clear direction for the film. It basically felt like Overman decided at the last minute to throw in everything but the kitchen sink. As much as I enjoyed the performances, this lack of direction slowed the pace of the film down a lot and I found myself checking the time. Its a shame because the first half does an excellent job roping the audience into the film, but its unable to hold onto it by the end.

Overall, I appreciated and enjoyed The Messenger despite some serious flaws. If you’re looking to watch a war movie that doesn’t attempt to ram a message down your throat or a meaning character study with great performances, this would be your film. I have to warn you, however, that the second part of the film will try your patience for its lack of focus.