Bad News Wears: Harrelson and Foster are hardened by the job.

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Yes, The Messenger is another war movie, but what sells the film is that co-writer (and debut director) Oren Moverman focuses on the families rather than the combat. Like The Hurt Locker, The Messenger skips politics in favor of the individuals involved, particularly the men tasked with notifying deceased soldiers’ next of kin. Ben Foster, finally securing a good role in a good film, plays Will Montgomery, a staff sergeant recently returned from Iraq who’s assigned to the Army’s Casualty Notification Team for the final three months of his enlistment. He’s paired with Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a soldier who’s been doing the gig for quite a while and is as hardened and traumatized by the experience as anyone on the front lines. Together, they mechanically deliver bad news to hysterical families, trying their best to maintain a stoic demeanor and stick to the script while adhering to rules that forbid them from touching the aggrieved in an attempt to console. They both suffer from insomnia. And though Tony, thrice married, talks tough about not getting too deeply involved with women, Will’s still-broken heart over a childhood sweetheart (Jena Malone) who didn’t wait for him leads him into an extremely tentative involvement with Olivia (Samantha Morton), a fresh widow he meets on the job. When Will’s superior gives him the assignment, he stresses that the job is “about character.” The same can be said about The Messenger itself. The film’s slight story is secondary to the quick bond that develops between Will and Tony. Harrelson and Foster have terrific chemistry. Harrelson’s Tony is particularly engaging, a dark humor underlying his steely sense of duty; instructing Will on what to do at an NOK’s door, he says: “Sometimes you get one of those godawful chirpin’ doorbells, some sing-songy shit, throws you right off your game—Yankee doodle went to town riding on a pony…and ‘sorry your husband’s dead’ doesn’t flow. So I like to knock.” Near the end of the film, Will launches into a story about a traumatic experience in the field, and Tony stares at him with attention so rapt you get the feeling it’s the closest either man ever gets to therapy. And you don’t have to have any military experience to relate to the script’s running theme of grief. The interactions between the men and the families of the fallen are gut-wrenching, with two particularly memorable moments involving Steve Buscemi as a father who reacts with anger and, later, humility. If there’s any message Moverman wanted to convey in his film, he has Tony deliver it best, if bitterly: “Soldiers go to war, everyone waves flags and applauds…and then bullets fly and soldiers die and it’s such a shock.” Personal tragedies trump bitterness here, though, making The Messenger a universally relatable drama instead of just another story about Iraq.