Intricately fusing laughter and sorrow, the narrative charts the journey of injured Sergeant Will Montgomery (Foster) as he is relocated to the army's Casualty Notification Team. Despite never receiving grief counselling following the harrowing scenario that caused his severe wounds in Iraq, Will is tasked with breaking the bad news to relatives of recently-deceased comrades. Captain Tony Stone (Harrelson), a disciplinarian and recovering alcoholic with more than a passing resemblance to WWF soldier Sergeant Slaughter, is on hand to teach Will how to follow the precise procedure in place. No form of physical contact is allowed, for example, which doesn't quite lend itself to the close bond Will forms with the freshly-widowed lady (Samantha Morton) he has to pay a heartbreaking visit to one day.
The Messenger never adopts the overblown melodramatic approach, deploying subtle camerawork and a minimalist score to instead allow an array of fine performances to shine through. We witness a procession of lives instantly ruined at the precise moment the designated next-of-kins realise why the sombre-looking soldiers are there to see them. As Captain Stone comments, "There is no such thing as a satisfied customer" in their line of duty. It's to the huge credit of the supporting cast, particularly Steve Buscemi as a parent whose bereavement turns to aggression, that all these sequences are so moving and credible.
Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson make a formidable partnership, with both men's consciences weighted down by their contrasting wartime experiences and personal battles. Harrelson is barely recognisable from the happy-go-lucky barman in Cheers, and deserving of his Oscar nomination for a role in which you can see a myriad of emotions fighting away beneath his stern exterior. In contrast, the frazzled nature of Will's turbulent predicament is explicitly etched over Foster's face, with the poor man looking to be on the verge of a mental meltdown at any moment. In a lesser part as the grieving object of Will's desire, Samantha Morton has little to do or say - but still manages to give great pathos and depth to the character.
A fascinating insight into a job that is hardly ever acknowledged, The Messenger is a low-key movie that stays with the viewer long after the end credits have rolled. It comes as no surprise to learn that it landed an Oscar nomination for 'Original Screenplay', too, as the writing is packed full of observations that are thought-provoking and unexpectedly funny. It never feels contrived or overwritten, managing to deftly pack emotional punches through the strength of its performances and direction.