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If the army has a second-worst job (it goes without saying that combat is by far the scariest and most horrific), it has to be the one depicted in director-cowriter Oren Moverman's The Messenger, which draws us into the lives of the soldiers whose grim duty it is to inform next of kin that a loved one has died in the conflict in Iraq. Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster, best known for his recurring role in Six Feet Under) has just returned home, injured, decorated as a hero for saving several other soldiers, and only three months from being discharged, when he is assigned to Casualty Notification (described by his commanding officer as "a sacred mission"). Paired with Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a tightly wound, by-the-book veteran, Will soon discovers just how excruciating their job is, as a series of wrenchingly powerful scenes shows them delivering the worst possible news to spouses, parents, and others. The responses vary--stunned disbelief, weeping hysterics, becoming physically ill, even spitting in Will's face--but when Stone and Montgomery encounter Olivia (Samantha Morton), her reaction to being told she is now a widow is so dignified that Will, whose girlfriend (Jena Malone) found another man while he was at war, starts to quietly court her, in defiance of strict army regulations. The acting by those in both major and minor roles is uniformly excellent. Foster and Morton's scenes together are tender, tentative, and poignant without a trace of cheap sentimentality; and as Stone and Montgomery gradually bond, the former confronts his own demons without the scenery-chewing that has characterized many of Harrelson's recent roles. Bolstered by a script (by Moverman and Alessandro Camon) that also addresses the difficulty that soldiers in general have after returning home from the war, The Messenger, while certainly not an easy watch, ranks among the best movies of 2009. --Sam Graham