I'm Not There screenwriter Oren Moverman makes his directorial debut with The Messenger, a moving and nuanced drama about the home-front readjustment period for decorated Iraq War hero Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) who, after surviving a roadside blast, has been reassigned as a Casualty Notification Officer. He is partnered with self-proclaimed lunatic Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a dogged Army lifer and semirecovering alcoholic whose only support system is military etiquette. Together, they deliver the worst news to fallen soldiers' next of kin, and for Will, the volatile (and largely improvised) reactions from those left behind pick at his own emotional scabs. Some might duck and cover at a premise so grim, but Moverman and cowriter Alessandro Camon's topnotch script is loaded with authentic compassion and charm—even unlikely sucker punches of humor. Foster appropriately underplays, while Harrelson, never over the top, nails his showier role. The film is obviously about coping with grief — or not knowing how to — as illustrated in a slightly overcooked subplot about a newly widowed woman (Samantha Morton) Will tries to woo. But what really resonates is the complex tale of camaraderie between two men whose only hope of avoiding self-destruction is to let down their guard — which is, of course, against protocol.
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