Ben Foster softens his crazy-man shtick to deliver a complex and moving performance in the Iraq War drama.

Nobody plays angry like Ben Foster, but compassion is something new for the actor, who softens his crazy-man shtick to deliver a complex and moving performance in “The Messenger.” Foster plays an Iraq War hero assigned to work for the Casualty Notification Office — those uniformed bearers of bad news who show up on the doorsteps of parents and wives with word of a soldier’s death. Director Oren Moverman’s devastating debut confuses its message somewhat by allowing the officer to fall for one of the widows (Samantha Morton), a development, however, that should boost commercial prospects for this potent character study.

Joining such recent Iraq War films as “Grace Is Gone” and “The Lucky Ones” in addressing combat’s toll on the homefront, “The Messenger” manages to be both practical and patriotic in the same breath, zeroing in on one of the most painful aspects of wartime. Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Foster, “30 Days of Night”) was wounded in Iraq, taking shrapnel to the leg and face. With only three months of service left on his enlistment, he is reassigned to casualty notification, arguably the Army’s least comfortable job.

The movie sets up a fertile dynamic between the rebellious young man and his seasoned commanding officer, Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a recovering alcoholic who has developed the nerves for their task. Montgomery is too weak at first, identifying too strongly with the grieving families to be the stone-faced messenger the job requires. After all, Montgomery is still working through his own issues: He came home to find his ex-girlfriend (Jena Malone) engaged to someone else, and he carries his post-traumatic stress just beneath the surface — a stunning use of the actor’s innate volatility.

But as the relationship between Montgomery and Stone matures, we come to realize that Montgomery may actually be the soldier better suited to express the Army’s condolences to complete strangers. The task certainly helps him cope with his own demons — Foster takes responsibility for a comrade’s death and wrestles daily with the guilt of his own survival in ways that are suggested but not directly articulated until late in the movie.

Though much of the film focuses on their off hours, the episodes of the two officers at work prove challenging. Such scenes of sudden grief are familiar to most auds (the mother collapsing in her doorway in “Saving Private Ryan”), but “The Messenger” views the exchange from the p.o.v. of the men tasked with breaking the news. Montgomery has a difficult time standing by during these encounters (featuring strong, brief appearances by actors such as Steve Buscemi) — and in the case of Morton’s Army wife, he goes back to check up on her, an admirable sensitivity complicated by a highly inappropriate sexual attraction.

To offset the sheer tragedy, Moverman and co-writer Alessandro Camon inject a fair amount of humor into the film. Stone’s casual jocularity is a way of coping with so much loss, and over time, Harrelson slowly lets the audience in on the true fragility of his character. But the narrative loses focus late in the second act, with the two officers going off on a wild bender, and crystallizes once again in a powerful confessional between the two men toward the end of the movie.

Camerawork and tech credits are polished and ready for release.

The Messenger

Production

An Omnilab Media Group presentation in association with Sherezade Film Development Co. and BZ Entertainment of a Mark Gordon Co. /Good Worldwide production. (International sales: UTA, Los Angeles.) Produced by Gordon, Lawrence Inglee, Zach Miller. Executive producers, Ben Goldhirsh, Christopher Mapp, Matthew Street, David Whealy, Glenn Stuart, Steffen Aumueller, Claus Clausen, Bryan Zuriff, Shaun Redick. Directed by Oren Moverman. Screenplay, Moverman, Alessandro Camon.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Bobby Bukowski; editor, Alex Hall; music, Nathan Larson; music supervisor, Tracy McKnight; production designer, Stephen Beatrice; costume designer, Catherine George; sound (Dolby), Ken Ishii; casting, Laura Rosenthal, Ali Farrell. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 19, 2009. (Also in Berlin Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 112 MIN.

With

Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery - Ben Foster Capt. Tony Stone - Woody Harrelson Olivia Pitterson - Samantha Morton Kelly - Jena Malone Dale Martin - Steve Buscemi Col. Stuart Dorsett - Eamonn Walker

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