As a cinematic bookend to The Hurt Locker (cross-reference below) Oren Moverman’s directorial début threatens to burn up the screen with the heart-wrenching, searing segments where a pair of specially chosen U.S. Army representatives disinterestedly inform NOK (next of kin) that their loved one has died in Iraq.
Captain Tony Stone (played with considerable insight, understanding and depth by Woody Harrelson) is the watermelon-loving veteran bearer of bad news. His new assistant, Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster ideally cast in the challenging role), has just returned from Iraq and is playing out his current contract before deciding whether to re-enlist for another tour of death and destruction.
Together the two men, as surrogates for the Secretary of the Army, track down verifiable NOK and express the thanks of a nation for the ultimate sacrifice. Along the way, systemic cruelty is inflicted on the soon-to-be-bereaved. The mother of one of the departed can receive the news of her son’s demise, but not his clearly pregnant girlfriend (they were to be married …). Sergeant Montgomery, when he’s finally ready to take the lead, endures spit in his face and the haunting question, “Why are you alive?” Sudden vomit betrays another father’s grief even as the “do not touch NOK” rule is breached.
As a further deeply disturbing reminder about the inanity of this war without an overarching cause, the film’s first thirty minutes are as subliminally and cinematically good as it gets. There is no feeling of fiction, only that the names have been changed …
On one occasion, a distraught mother, Olivia (Samantha Morton does her best with Moverman’s and Alessandro Camon’s script) and her very young son, Matt (Jahmir Duran-Abreau is delightfully conspiratorial with his cliché disdain of broccoli, but needs a lot more screen time to truly flesh out the suddenly fatherless boy’s character), warrants a return, unofficial, visit from Sergeant Montgomery. That unprofessional act earns his captain’s contempt and mockery (“The man’s shirt on the clothesline—she’s banging somebody”) but is imposed to drive the now, soap opera, drama forward.
As their unlikely courtship moves uneasily forward (a wonderfully awkward moment of near-sex being the best scene in their budding relationship—Matt’s out-of-frame pounding of the family’s upright piano is another deft touch that aurally captures his early anger), the two soldiers’ own friendship grows stronger whether drinking their sorrows away (the Captain falls off his hot-tea-and-ice wagon in favour of endless beer), having fisticuffs with the young hooligans that ruined the tranquility of their fishing trip (once again, left to off-stage imagination) or crashing the family gathering of Kelly (Jena Malone) and Allan (Michael Chernus) as the decorated Sergeant’s ex and her husband-in-waiting prepare for a life of happiness, joy and no guns.
Sadly, this story can’t reignite the earlier passion and outrage, giving the production a decidedly uneven tone and lessening its potential impact. The writers’ attempt to rekindle their early success revolves around stateside lies and a battlefield back-story, which—while momentarily poignant and gripping—make the narrative merely come to an end rather than subtly reinforcing the opening measures of this symphony of loss and despair.
Still, the image of an empty piano bench on the lawn with no instrument anywhere near, resonates with those who’ve ever been abandoned on either side of armed conflict. JWR