There’s an old familiar saying that most of us agree with: Respect your elders.
Not many could argue with that. They are the voices of experience. They’ve seen it all before. They can tell you whatever you need to know. This film turns that old saying on its head.
We open with a young Staff Sergeant named Will Montgomery(Ben Foster) back from duty in Iraq. He is a bit rusty regarding good table manners and plays heavy metal music too loud. It would be easy to imagine the rest of his story arc. Maybe he retires honourably, buys a house in an affordable area and tries to ignore his recent past by marrying his high school sweetheart.
But already we see the high school sweetheart option is out. She has accepted her consolation prize while he was away. The young Sergeant doesn’t get angry, however. We learn soon that little phases him, on the surface at least.
He is soon recommissioned to perform duties as a casualty notification agent. This basically involves going to deceased soldiers houses and telling mom or dad that their son has died. Luckily, or unluckily for Sergeant, he has been partnered with Tony(played here by Woody Harrelson), a veteran of the Gulf War of the early 1990s. He certainly knows it all and isn’t afraid to share his laconic wisdom.
In the process, we get to see that although the geography and terrain of both wars were similar, the class of 1991 had it easy compared to their comrades some twelve years later.
The narrative that unfolds is compelling. Every awkward knock at the door is tangibly uncomfortable. Every parent or wife offering a new challenge. Montgomery holds it together as best he can, perhaps using his new role as a means of catharsis.
Ultimately we get to the point that Montgomery is recalling a battle he was engaged in. Tony has nothing to match it in his own experiences.
The subject matter is not exactly light as you can tell. To make it work on a cinematic level you need great performances. The director is blessed to have Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson here. Foster is a force to be reckoned with, totally plausible as a youthful Sergeant whose young eyes, one now permanently damaged, has seen so much.
Harrelson for his part plays his part to perfection. His portrayal of easy living Gulf War vet who makes his own problems hints at a future stand-out performance in True Detective some years later. As worldly knowledge is gradually pared down to a confusing and perhaps irreparable opinion of the army.
Special mention to Samantha Morton, who really shines as a newly made widow. There are at least two scenes with her that while being subtle, are simply unforgettable.
I think this is a vital film about the post 9/11 Iraq war and the differing attitudes among the generations.