(Oscilloscope Laboratories) Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, Eamonn Walker, Steve Buscemi, Yaya DaCosta. Directed by Oren Moverman
It is a fact of war that soldiers die, and it is a part of the Army’s responsibility to notify the next of kin that their loved one has died. That is perhaps the most difficult assignment any soldier could ever receive. You have to wonder what it does to the people delivering the bad news to family after family.
SSgt. Will Montgomery (Foster) is just back from a tour in Iraq, having been injured in battle. He has three months left on his tour and the Army, rather than sending him back overseas, decides to assign him to the Casualty Notification Service. These are the men who show up at the door in dress uniforms to inform the next of kin that their loved one is dead.
Will is assigned to Capt. Tony Stone (Harrelson), a veteran of the service who has written the book on how to do the job properly; use the prepared verbiage, never hug or touch the NOK (next of kin – the Army is inordinately fond of acronyms) and never, EVER get involved with them. The touch feely stuff is handled by professionals. Their job is to deliver the news nobody wants to hear. Period.
Each assignment is different. Some react with anger and resentment; others with wailing and sobbing. Some, like Olivia (Morton), a new widow hanging out the washing in her front yard, handle it with a strange kind of calm and politeness.
That particular reaction is like catnip to Will, who can’t really figure it out. He finds himself drawn to her, running into her at the mall (accidentally on purpose), fixing her car, helping her get ready to move and so on. That puts some strain on the relationship between Will and Tony, which has deepened into a strange kind of friendship. Both men have deep-seated issues; Tony with alcoholism, Will with the men he left behind. As Will encounters more and more grief, it soon becomes clear that he will need to deal with his own.
This is the first feature for Moverman, who is himself a veteran of the Israeli army. The movie isn’t a technical achievement by any means; he wisely keeps it simple and allows the powerful story and strong performances to captivate the viewer.
The performances are strong indeed. Harrelson was quite justifiably nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and this is one of the best performances of his career. His Tony Stone is a ramrod-straight by-the-book military officer who, if you rub some of the spit and polish off, is terribly wounded and weak in his own way. His last scene is pivotal and one of the highlights of the film.
Morton is not an actress I’m enamored of, but she does solid work here. While I found the relationship between Olivia and Will unlikely, it wasn’t because of Morton. Rather, I thought the situation didn’t ring true; while the grieving process can cause people to act in ways they wouldn’t ordinarily (and certainly in ways that defy logic), it didn’t seem to me that Olivia would lose her heart so quickly. It seemed at odds with the character, although again I acknowledge that grief makes people do funny things.
The movie rests on Foster’s shoulders; it is his performance that will carry or ruin the film. Fortunately, it is the former. Foster has mostly played twitchy villains in his career, but here he plays a twitchy lead. It’s a nuanced performance that really allows us to look at how war can wound in ways that aren’t always visible.
This isn’t an easy movie to watch. It deals with some of the most raw, terrible emotions that humans are capable of feeling. Particularly moving is Buscemi’s performance as a grieving dad, who screams at the soldiers’ departing backs “Why aren’t YOU over there? Why aren’t YOU dead?” It’s compelling stuff, but watching movies this emotionally charged can be very hard on the psyche – which in my opinion is a good thing.
I like that we get to see a part of the armed forces that is overlooked; when our brave warriors make the ultimate sacrifice, it is up to these professionals to deliver the worst news possible to those left behind. It takes the kind of bravery that is equal to that of facing enemy fire on the battlefield.
WHY RENT THIS: The performances of Foster and the Oscar-nominated Harrelson make this memorable. The subject looks into a little-seen aspect of the Army.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little too much pathos and the relationship between Will and Olivia seemed a trifle forced to me.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality and a smattering of foul language, but it is the subject matter that makes this a bit too difficult for the younger set.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sgt. Brian Scott, who served as a technical consultant on the film, was subsequently deployed to Iraq where he was injured by an IED in Baghdad.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Strangely, the DVD contains an interesting documentary on the Casualty Notification and Casualty Assistance offices of the Army that is not present on the Blu-Ray.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage