It's an unenviable task, making films about the war on terror for audiences that don't want to sit through dramatizations of the same bad news they get for real out of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Less enviable is the task the key characters are charged with in "The Messenger": Providing word to people back home that a loved one has died in action.
After Kathryn Bigelow served up the first great Iraq War film with this year's "The Hurt Locker," Oren Moverman delivers a moderately engaging homefront counterpart on "The Messenger," a story that strays about without finding its center.
Ben Foster, whose specialty has been playing captivating mad dogs such as his "3:10 to Yuma" gunslinger, is a stout but far less-interesting presence in the restrained title role here.
Foster's Will Montgomery is a wounded war hero just back from Iraq and assigned to the Army's casualty-notification service, one of those grim, uniformed guys whose knock you never want to hear if you have a spouse or parent or child in harm's way.
Will is paired with career military guy Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), who approaches his job with the soul-crushing diligence of a telemarketer, robotically sticking to the Army-approved script for notifying next of kin.
The heartache families experience is painfully authentic, particularly among some of the anonymous characters whom Will and Tony notify then never see again.
First-time director Moverman and co-writer Alessandro Camon often put the characters in situations that feel forced and artificial. The story trips up over Will's obsession with Olivia (Samantha Morton) after he and Tony inform her of her husband's death overseas.
The relationship that develops between Will and Olivia is sweet and touching, and they both recognize it's a bad idea. The filmmakers handle it all with restraint, yet Foster and Morton seem to be going through the motions, acting out something on the page but not in their hearts.
There's little hint of the passion that would make these two people flirt with violating the taboo of romance between a war widow and the man who brought word of her bereavement.
Foster is a solid anchor, capturing the introspection of a soldier readjusting to home life — ill-at-ease with his war-hero status, uncertain about his Army future, rueful over the sacrifices he made to serve his country.
"The Messenger" just drifts around him, though, the focus shifting from unfinished personal business out of Will's civilian life to his fumbling affection for Olivia, who then drops out of sight for a long stretch as the film switches to a mismatched-buddy story between Will and Tony.
It's a little boring, and more than a little unconvincing, with Harrelson a superficial caricature when he's out to play Tony as a good old Army lifer and a shallow crybaby when he tries to put some depth in the guy.
The big surprise is how little Morton registers. Normally inhabiting a character to the bone, Morton here is whispery and shadowy, no better defined than some of the other next of kin who are only bit players in the film.
"The Messenger" is at its best depicting moments — Will's tryst with an old flame (Jena Malone) now engaged to another man, a parent's turnabout from anger to deepest commiseration when he learns of his daughter's secret marriage and her widowhood in the same moment. The anguished rant of a father (Steve Buscemi, in a small but deeply moving role) who blindly demands to know, why his son instead of Will?
Such moments are powerful snapshots in a drama that's otherwise a bit out of focus.