There is a moment in The Messenger, a film about two soldiers whose sole mission is to notify family members that their loved one was killed in combat, where SSG Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) and Cpt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) go on a fishing trip. It's a simple scene, culminating in the two of them getting in a fight with a couple of jet skiers, but it encapsulates everything that the film is about: how loss and grief can change a person, more so when he ignores and hides that change.
The film presents its military men as gruff, red-blooded Americans, the toughest of the tough guys. Even though there are no bullets flying, no bombs going off, these two men face the toughest action they've ever scene: the emotional turmoil they deliver to unsuspecting families. They are required to follow a strict set of rules during these encounters, and must stick to a script. Its these moments that the film delivers its true emotional core: as the people they visit fall apart in front of them (Steve Buscemi's part is the most memorable), Montgomery and Stone have to remain stone-faced and mechanical. The irony of that is that even in their private lives they maintain that act, refusing to yield to emotion in front of anyone, especially each other.
Harrelson's performance has rightly earned raves, as his Cpt. Stone is easily the most complexly entertaining character in the film. He's a womanizing hardliner who is secretly disgraced, and Harrelson gives the the role just enough levity to get us to sympathize with him. He's basically playing a more serious version of Tallahassee from Zombieland.
Ben Foster, on the other hand, deals with a much tricker part. His SSG Montgomery is a decorated war hero with a reckless streak, and doesn't have much control over his personal life. His story contains the screenplay's, written by director Oren Moverman and Alessandro Camon, biggest weakness: romance. Both Montgomery's relationship with his now-engaged ex-girlfriend (Jena Malone) and his new relationship with an army widow (Samantha Morton) feel way too forced and out of place in the story. Foster delivers a fine performance throughout, though, which really makes me wonder why he hasn't been given more lead roles.
The Messenger is a film about loss, duty, and macho masculinity. Its a fine film that works best when Foster and Harrelson share the screen, hiding their emotions behind their facades.
Note: It was recently announced that Moverman will be directing a Kurt Cobain biopic as his next film. Given the introspective approach he takes in this film, he seems like an excellent choice to tackle such an introverted subject.