The Messenger opens Friday in select theaters

The best war movies don’t always take place on the battlefield. Classics such as The Best Years of Our Lives, Coming Home, The Deer Hunter and Born on the Fourth of July are grounded in the unfortunate truth that the theater of war extends to the home front. Still, the backdrop for The Messenger, Oren Moverman’s astonishing directing debut, is especially resonant and cinematically uncharted.

The film follows two soldiers assigned to the Army’s casualty notification service, responsible for informing families of the deaths of their loved ones. Without even a modicum of character development, this is a profound premise. We learn that these “messengers” are themselves soldiers coping with their own wounds and memories as they witness the raw grief of others. In many instances, the mere sight of the two soldiers standing at their doorstep is enough to provoke grown men into fits of unbridled anguish.

One of the messengers in this film is Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), a highly decorated, seriously wounded and psychologically scarred Iraq vet winding down his remaining months of enlistment. His partner is Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a thrice-divorced recovering alcoholic ramrod who suppresses his own demons behind a façade of carefully proscribed Army protocols: Never touch the family members, for example, or use only clear words like “died” and “killed,” rather than euphemisms such as “gone” or “fallen.”

Early scenes in which we see Montgomery and Stone at work in a series of home visitsand in one case encountering the parents of a fallen soldier in a grocery storeare the film’s heart-wrenching core. Moverman’s deft presentation keeps these honest and moving moments from becoming manipulative or polemical.

During one notification, Montgomery becomes drawn to Olivia (Samantha Morton), a war widow; their ensuing relationship skirts procedural and ethical boundaries. Moverman (whose prior writing credits include Married Life, I’m Not There and Jesus’ Son) lingers over this subplot too long as it becomes a game of “will they or won’t they” (and “should they or shouldn’t they”). Ultimately, however, Montgomery and Olivia (and Stone, for that matter) are all lost souls searching for the solace of a kindred spirit.

Besides its affecting subject matter, the strength of The Messenger is its ensemble cast. Not since The People vs. Larry Flynt has Harrelson been this good, running the emotional gamut to play the complex, tormented Stone. Morton continues to solidify her standing as one of our best, most underrated actresses. But this film truly belongs to Foster, who previously turned heads with his roles in Alpha Dog and 3:10 to Yuma. Here, the young method actor effortlessly disappears into his role, producing the sort of stellar, transcendent performance that defines and catapults careers.

The Messenger makes an interesting companion to The Hurt Locker, the two being the most mature films yet set against the backdrop of the Iraq war. While Hurt Locker is largely representative of its particular milieu, the message of The Messenger applies just as intensely to any military conflict during any era.