The Messenger Woody Harrelson Ben Foster

An intriguing, combustible cocktail of deceptive calm and nervous energy, Ben Foster has been someone to keep an eye on after stealing not one but three movies in 2007 (Alpha Dog, 30 Days of Night, and 3:10 to Yuma). In his maturing leading-man debut, he quietly impresses as Will Montgomery, a wounded American soldier temporarily assigned the undesirable task of notifying next of kin that a spouse or relative has been killed in the line of duty. But, unexpectedly, Foster is outperformed by Woody Harrelson, in a smaller but showier role as Will’s alcoholic fellow bad-news bearer, a hard-nosed womanizing military lifer who’s a puppy dog at heart.

Their interplay, on the job (ruining the day of one unfortunate person after the next) and off (drinking, bonding, and confronting their feelings of isolation), provides the backbone of this erratically paced film. Less interesting is Will’s developing relationship with the just-widowed mother of a young boy (a sympathetic yet miscast Samantha Morton), which breaks the very basic rule of not becoming personally involved with a grieving “client.”

Oren Moverman’s decidedly unpreachy and nonpolitical script (co-written by Alessandro Camon) fares better than his first-time direction. In the hands of someone more assured, The Messenger could have been, after The Hurt Locker, the second best to date among the proliferating ranks of Iraq War–related films.