That soldier is not one of the main characters in this movie, Oren Moverman’s sober and satisfying drama. He disappears after that one scene, having emphasized one of the film’s central insights. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have created a fissure in American society, a split that is not political but rather experiential — between the people who have been directly affected and those who have not.
This divide is perhaps most painful when it splits lovers, friends and close family members. But as “The Messenger” demonstrates with sensitive acuity, it is not necessarily a clear and simple line, and people who seem to live on the same side — servicemen on duty together, a veteran and a widow, a husband and a wife — can find themselves estranged and unable to communicate what they have in common.
As its title suggests, communication is among the film’s themes. Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), home from Iraq with a medal and a reputation for heroism, is given a new job in what the Army calls “bereavement notification.” Accompanied by an older officer, a captain named Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), he shows up at the doors of spouses and parents — whoever is designated the official next of kin — to deliver the grimmest imaginable news. Stone and Montgomery are not trained to provide counseling or permitted to offer comfort, but instead to relate the facts and circumstances of a soldier’s death.
Sometimes they are greeted with anger, as when a father, played by Steve Buscemi, spits at them and calls them cowards. At other times, as they stand on the porches of spacious suburban houses or cramped bungalows in New Jersey towns (they are stationed at Fort Dix), they encounter denial, resignation or pure, howling anguish. Most haunting are expressions of simple gratitude, or compassion for the difficult work they are doing.
There are protocols governing this duty, and Stone makes a point of citing the rule book whenever Montgomery wavers or lets his feelings get the better of him. Stone, a veteran of the first Persian Gulf war, is less disciplined in other aspects of his life. An inexhaustible skirt chaser and an exhausting talker, he is also a recovering alcoholic leaning dangerously over the side of the wagon.
Montgomery is quieter, partly as a result of his temperamental gentleness and partly because he carries the weight of having seen things he can’t talk about. Neither a square-jawed stoic nor a seething kettle of post-traumatic rage, he is, rather, both a vulnerable young man and a serious professional. The friendship that develops between him and Stone — a camaraderie shadowed at times by envy and suspicion — is remarkably nuanced and completely convincing.
Mr. Harrelson, using his natural affability as a mask for his character’s pain and insecurity, has never been better. And with this performance Mr. Foster, having shown intriguing promise in “Alpha Dog” and “3:10 to Yuma,” places himself in the first rank of young American screen actors. Their work is well supported by Jena Malone, as Will’s former girlfriend, and especially by Samantha Morton, playing a soldier’s widow with whom he becomes shyly and half-guiltily infatuated.
The script for “The Messenger,” which Mr. Moverman wrote with Alessandro Camon, has been purged of melodrama, and also of the glum indie-film conventions that weigh down so many forays into local realism. Though there are a few scenes that seem more written than lived, the film as a whole is remarkably textured, with room for humor as well as anguish.
Mr. Moverman, a combat veteran of the Israeli Army making his directing debut (his earlier writing credits include “I’m Not There,” “Married Life” and “Jesus’ Son”), approaches this material with an impressive mixture of empathy and objectivity. He seems able to render the psychological complexities of war and its consequences simultaneously from the inside and the outside. No movie can convey the truth of war to those of us who have not lived through it, but “The Messenger,” precisely by acknowledging just how hard it is to live with that truth, manages to bring it at least partway home.
“The Messenger” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has sex, nudity and strong language.
Directed by Oren Moverman; written by Mr. Moverman and Alessandro Camon; director of photography, Bobby Bukowski; edited by Alex Hall; music by Nathan Larson; production designer, Stephen Beatrice; produced by Mark Gordon, Lawrence Inglee and Zach Miller; released by Oscilloscope Laboratories. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.
WITH: Ben Foster (Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery), Woody Harrelson (Capt. Tony Stone), Samantha Morton (Olivia Pitterson), Jena Malone (Kelly) and Steve Buscemi (Dale Martin).