We are told at the beginning of "The Messenger" that Sergeant Will Montgomery is a hero. Wounded while earning medals for bravery, Montgomery is rotated back home and assigned to serve out the rest of his tour as part of the Army’s Casualty Notification Service. Will now has to break the bad news to the families of soldiers who died serving in combat.

Will is paired with Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a tough-talking and hard-partying veteran of the unit who quickly relays the basics of casualty notification. For instance: You never touch the NOK’s (next of kin), you never park to close (you don’t want the whole neighborhood knowing), and you always keep your beeper on and near you at all time ("The Army always has to be first. We don’t want them finding out watching CNN.").

Directed by: Oren Moverman
Starring: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson,
Jena Malone
Runtime: 105 minutes
Rated: R

The scenes of Tony and Will notifying the families are beautifully done. Seeing the two try to follow such a sterile and robotic script in the face of such raw emotion is heartbreaking and involving. They are slapped, spit on and yelled at. The reactions are always different but their method is always the same. The film acknowledges how completely inadequate the whole process is, without suggesting how it could be improved. Is there any good way to notify family members? Maybe there just is not a better way.

"The Messenger" could have easily descended into a preachy and over-wrought mess, but the strength of the performances and the sensitivity of the writing keep the film grounded in real human emotion.

Ben Foster, who has recently been typecast in wild-eyed and unhinged villainous roles like in "3:10 to Yuma" does beautifully understated work here as Will. It would have been easy to play the part over the top, but Foster finds a nice balance. Will may be full of survivor’s guilt, but he isn’t consumed by it. When he finally tells his war story to Tony near the end of the film,

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