‘The Messenger’ tells troubling story well

With “The Messenger,” writer-director Oren Moverman set himself a daunting task: Make a film about a unique but emotionally painful job.

“The Messenger” is about two military men detailed to the “bereavement notification” unit. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), newly home from Iraq and carrying some physical and psychological scars, needs to learn the ropes of a job he’s reluctantly accepted.

His mentor is an experienced captain, Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson). They’re stationed at Fort Dix, which means their job is to travel around New Jersey and visit the next of kin of recently killed soldiers and deliver the bad news.

For Stone, this job is so touchy it requires a ramrod adherence to regulation: no deviation from the script, no touching of the bereaved, no lingering.

His method sounds callous, but without these boundaries, the experience can be even worse for the next of kin — or NOKs, as Stone casually calls them.

The film is strung around a series of these encounters, all of them sad, some of them harrowing. In between, we see Montgomery and Stone attempting to dull the reflected trauma of their job: drinking, fighting, shooting the breeze long into the night.

One subplot has Montgomery becoming interested in a widow, but this uncomfortable attraction is never blown out of proportion. Samantha Morton plays the role, completely deglamorized, and as usual she’s incapable of making a false move.

Jena Malone is also admirable in a small role as Montgomery’s old flame, and Steve Buscemi lends an air of despair and anger as a bereaved father.

As for Ben Foster, it’s good to see him in a role that doesn’t require fireworks, because he’s been guilty of overdoing it in flashier parts (see “30 Days of Night” and “Alpha Dog”). I still don’t quite have a fix on him as an actor, somehow, but his intensity fits the part.

And as for Woody Harrelson — has anybody noticed how good this guy has gotten in the last few years? Along with bringing the fun in movies such as “2012” and “Zombieland,” he’s turned in powerful work in “No Country for Old Men” and “The Walker” and the little-seen “Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio.”

He’s got the public image of an herb-friendly hippie surfer and sometimes he plays to that. But in “The Messenger,” his controlled performance makes him completely believable as an Army lifer.

Oren Moverman is an Israeli military veteran who’s had his name on a few unusual projects as a co-writer (“Married Life” and the Bob Dylan picture “I’m Not There”). He does some interesting things here, including shooting a number of scenes in single, long, intense shots.

For all its merits, the film feels somewhat inarticulate — we’re so completely inside these soldiers’ lives, there’s not much sense of perspective. Perhaps that is the movie’s value, too.

“The Messenger”

An intense look at two soldiers (Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson) from Fort Dix who work in the bereavement notification unit, telling the next of kin their military loved ones have been killed in action. The movie doesn’t give much perspective outside the guys’ hothouse world, but maybe that’s its strength. With Samantha Morton.

Rated: R for language, nudity, subject matter

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