While on a recent deployment to Iraq, US Army Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is injured when an improvised explosive device goes off within close proximity to him. He is back in the States recovering from the more serious of those injuries, including one to his eye and leg. He has resumed a sexual relationship with his long time girlfriend Kelly (Jena Malone), despite the fact that she is now engaged to another man. With the few months Will has left in his enlistment, the army assigns him to the Casualty Notification Team in his area. Not having a background in counseling, psychology or grief management, he is unsure if he is well suited to this job. He is partnered with a career soldier, Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), who teaches Will the precise protocol involved in the job. As Will learns to adapt to the range of emotions of the next of kin, he is unprepared for the reaction of Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton), whose husband was killed in Iraq. His initial encounter with Olivia leads to him wanting to get to know her better, which may not be in either her or his best interest. Despite being a recovering alcoholic, the more experienced Tony tries to guide Will as best he can under their collective circumstances. The film is made by first-time director Oren Moverman, who also co-wrote.
Rating: 8 out of 10
This film is full of writing and characters, emotional scenes, cinematography and settings that make us think while not answering questions or taking sides. This is no easy task for any director, but Moverman helped create a beautiful script that is thoughtful, and a style of direction that flows with ease, but challenges the viewer.
Harrelson and Foster deliver two of the best performances of 2009, the former getting a worthy Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. Tony and Will are full of contradiction and their character development is smart. Will keeps people at bay, including his ex-girlfriend who he still sleeps with, despite her being engaged. He doesn’t own a computer, so he can’t e-mail or instant message. He turns his phone off and listens to loud heavy metal when he’s alone in his largely empty home. Tony is a recovering alcoholic who hangs out in bars and drinks water with lemon, can’t keep a relationship, is competely insensitive but has to be for his job.
There are many dramatic and emotional scenes throughout the movie as the two visit the dead soldiers’ family member homes. There’s a great role played by Steve Buscemi (Reservoir Dogs) as a grieving father. Will is torn, trying not to be too sensitive while Tony is icy in his calm delivery of the bad news. This is the military’s toughest job, and this current events picture is honest about that without being preachy, taking sides, or being unfair to the veterans who selflessly serve our country every day. This is one of the best films of last year, and I look forward to seeing more films by Moverman.