There’s something absurdly alienating, and maybe even dehumanizing, about having to break the news of someone’s death to people you don’t know. The ordeal forces you to boil down the complexities of human grief to a simple science that can be understood and manipulated.

“The Messenger”

At the Michigan
Oscilloscope Laboratories

But in “The Messenger,” the new Iraq war-era drama by director and co-writer Oren Moverman (who previously co-scripted “I’m Not There”), that science of grief is played for pathos instead of cold disconnection.

Ultimately, when the product being shipped is sadness, it hurts a lot to be the delivery boy.

Ben Foster (“Pandorum”) gives a deeply touching breakthrough performance as Will Montgomery, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army who is sent home after injuring himself in battle and is reassigned to his local “Angel of Death” squadron. When a soldier dies, it becomes his job to break the news to the next of kin, or NOK, as they’re coldly called. There must always be two soldiers present to deliver the death notice, and Montgomery’s partner is Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson, “Zombieland”), a grizzled veteran of carrying these Grim Reaper-like tidings.

Tony talks about their job as though it’s a military operation akin to Desert Storm, and he brings certain rules to their line of work: Speak only with the NOK. Don’t greet them with a “good morning” — “Ain’t nothing good about it,” Tony remarks. And under no circumstances are you to touch the NOK. No extended compassion beyond the government-regulated amount is allowed.

“The Messenger” isn’t really an “Iraq war movie.” It’s a film about being in the presence of death and an exploration of the various forms grief can take. Far from making an overtly political statement, the movie succeeds because it’s a deeply human drama with touching performances, including Steve Buscemi (“Fargo”) in the most heartbreaking three-minute role you’ll ever see.

Foster and Harrelson both play tortured souls whose spirits were broken long before they became Angels of Death. Foster is particularly devastating. The young actor is in every scene, and his stoic silences speak volumes about the intense pain that’s hiding just under his skin. He begins a tentative and ethically questionable relationship with a newly widowed recipient of his message (Samantha Morton, “Synecdoche, New York”). This story could have gone into territory too grim for even this film, but the two actors are so delicate with each others’ emotions that their scenes together are some of the most effective in the movie.

In his first directing job, Moverman proves himself as an ace at navigating the whole spectrum of human emotion through superb camerawork that never shifts its focus away from the drama. He knows when to use extended single takes for blistering emotional effectiveness, and keeps a morbidly aware tone throughout. A homecoming scene where a returning soldier mocks the song “Taps” is followed immediately by the funeral of a different soldier, where, yes, “Taps” is played. No need to dance around the subject of death like a more cautious filmmaker might have done: Here the subject’s always right there in the open, invading every frame, the true star of the film.

There’s no hope in “The Messenger” in the traditionally melodramatic sense, but ultimately an uplifting spirit does prevail in the characters that has nothing to do with the horrors of war. Here is a film that is deeply reverent to and understanding of our military. The fact that it was made by a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces, not the U.S. Armed Forces, is demonstrative of the universality of the themes on display here. There is death in war, just as there is death in life, and films like “The Messenger” can help us to live and learn alongside its presence.

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