Harrelson delivers in 'The Messenger'

Posted: Thursday, February 18, 2010

It is a little weird to think of Woody from "Cheers" being up for an Oscar. It is weirder still when you realize Woody Harrelson is now a two-time Oscar nominee (he was a Best Actor nominee for 1996's "The People vs. Larry Flynt"). And yes, it is even weirder-er when you have to acknowledge that the sweet, naïve Woody Boyd is all grown up and is very deserving of his Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role nomination. Harrelson plays Captain Tony Stone in "The Messenger," directed by Oren Moverman, and he manages to stand out from the crowd even though the crowd itself is quite good.

We meet Captain Stone through Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) - after all Woody is the supporting actor, not the lead - when Montgomery is assigned to Stone's unit. His "unit," though, doesn't involve anything in the way of bullets or combat. Stone runs the Casualty Notification service for the Army; essentially his job is to be the first to notify the next of kin when a soldier dies. Pretty awesome gig. And by "awesome" I mean awful. There's no getting around how horrible the job is. Stone does his best to pretend it doesn't bother him to shatter the lives of the folks he meets ever so briefly, but he is only human. Montgomery does his best, too, to take things in stride. Still, when a grieving father (a small but moving turn by Steve Buscemi) spits with anger into Montgomery's face... it is impossible not to shift uncomfortably in your seat.

That's the job, though. Like it or not, Montgomery and Stone are good Army employees. They do their jobs. It is weird for them and it is weird for us in the audience just watching it from afar. Moverman (who co-wrote the Oscar nominated screenplay with Alessandro Camon) does not stop there, either. Montgomery is trying to cope with the fact that his longtime girlfriend is marrying someone else, not to mention the combat injuries he is slowly recovering from. Stone is lonely, which Harrelson portrays with a fair amount of charm when Stone calls Montgomery late at night and asks innocently, "You got e-mail? What's your e-mail address?" Finally, just to make things as interesting as possible, Montgomery begins to fall for one of the widows (Samantha Morton) they break the awful news to one day.

Remember those TNT promos on television where the actors from shows like "The Closer" and "Law & Order" looked into the camera and asked, "What is drama?"

Well, it's this. "The Messenger" is drama. It is interesting, compelling, entertaining and genuinely funny (usually thanks to Harrelson) just often enough to keep it from being downright depressing.

I don't want to sell Ben Foster short, either. If Harrelson is superb - and he is --then Foster is, at worst, fantastic. Foster can act. I still think he should have been nominated for his supporting role in 1996's "Alpha Dog." As Montgomery, Foster shows layer after layer to the complex and conflicted Staff Sergeant. He's not over the top and instead seems completely real. Opposite Harrelson, and since they're together on screen more often than not, it is rare that what is on screen is not interesting during the 112 minute running time of "The Messenger".

There are a few moments of "sexuality" and some colorful language (hence the R rating), but other than that... not too many reasons not to carve out a couple of hours for "The Messenger". The fact that it opens tonight at the Gold Town Nickelodeon - just one more reason to go.

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