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Harrelson saves best work for ‘Messenger’

In “The Messenger,” Woody Harrelson vividly reminds us that he’s not just a drawling punch line, a handy hunk of comic relief or ace zombie killer.

As an Army captain relegated to “CNO” – “Casualty Notification Officer” – Harrelson gives us layers of hurt under a callous yet needy crust. It may be the best performance of his career, deserving of his supporting actor Oscar nomination.

Oren Moverman’s film tells this story from the point of view of a wounded vet just back from Iraq.

Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster of “3:10 to Yuma”) wears a scar over the eye that he almost lost in combat. When he gets home, he’s greeted by the girl he left behind (Jena Malone), who enjoys a romp in the sack with him before pointing out that she’s about to get married.

Assigned as a CNO, he dons his dress uniform and black beret and joins Capt. Tony Stone (Harrelson) for that sad trip to tell a fallen soldier’s family that he’s been killed.

“You do not speak with anyone other than next of kin,” Stone growls. “Avoid physical contact. In case you feel like offering a hug, don’t.”

When you make a few house calls with these “angels of death,” you understand. Fathers weep, or worse. Widows slap them and the neighbors stare mournfully at the duo as they drive down streets where everybody knows what they’re there to do.

But one “NOK” (next of kin) gets to Montgomery. She (Samantha Morton) is hanging laundry. She has a young son inside the house. She is stunned, but not that stunned. And she seems just as worried for the men who have to carry out this mission.

Her compassion and dazed reaction touches the sergeant, who takes a plainly inappropriate interest in the new widow. His ethical dilemma is the moral compass of the film.

Moverman wisely spends most of the movie connecting the two warriors doing this awful job. The bonding scenes – in bars, fishing, skirt-chasing – may be cliches, but they give away the desperation of one man, the despair of another.

It’s an unblinking look into the lives of soldiers doing the most thankless job of all.

“The Messenger” is playing at the Magic Lantern Theatre.

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