Will (Foster) is just out of military hospital after being injured while serving in Iraq; his relationship with his girlfriend (Malone) is strained, and he's not happy about his new assignment informing families about the deaths of loved ones in the warzone. His mentor for the job is the jaded Tony (Harrelson), who survives by maintaining his distance from the families: "Don't touch the NOK" (next of kin), he tells Will. But Will can't help but reach out to them, and one widow (Morton) makes a particularly strong impression on him.
There isn't much of a plot, so the film feels more like a fable. But this means that it's finely focussed on the characters, echoing their moody, nervous attitudes in the textured camerawork and emotional underscore. It's a remarkable directing debut for writer Moverman, and it gives the actors the space to do some powerfully introspective work. Both Foster and Harrelson give the best performances of their careers as two guys who have been changed by war ("you can't unsee the s**t") and are surprised to find themselves learning from each other.
Foster is terrific as a man who's precariously on the edge, a decorated war hero sidelined on the "angel of death detail" and given a beeper. Harrelson brings a remarkably fragile steeliness to Tony, using gallows humour to cover this sly but hollow man's internal anguish. "There's no such thing as a satisfied customer," he says, with a mixture of cynicism and pathos. And Morton is also excellent as one grieving survivor we follow beyond the doorstep.
What's most impressive about this film is the grown-up approach it takes to both bereavement and heroism, looking at death straight-on without sentimentalising or simplifying it. While many scenes are unbearably sad, they also maintain a respectful stillness and underlying wit, plus a strong attention to telling detail. And even if the plot takes a couple of contrived turns, this is subtle, observant filmmaking about what's going on inside the characters for a change.
Run time: 113 mins
In Theaters: Friday 19th February 2010
Box Office USA: $1.0M
Box Office Worldwide: $592.4 thousand
Distributed by: Oscilloscope Pictures
Production compaines: Oscilloscope Laboratories
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
Fresh: 140 Rotten: 16
IMDB: 7.2 / 10
Director: Oren Moverman
Producer: Gwen Bialic, Benjamin Goldhirsh, Mark Gordon
Starring: Ben Foster as Will Montgomery, Woody Harrelson as Tony Stone, Jena Malone as Kelly, Eamonn Walker as Stuart Dorsett, Samantha Morton as Olivia Pitterson, Steve Buscemi as Dale Martin, Dale Soules as Cashier, Stevie Ray Dallimore as Kelly's Father, Michael Chernus as Alan, Marceline Hugot as Mrs. Flanigan, Lindsay Michelle Nader as Claire
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