War movies, as evidenced by the Academy Award-nominated The Hurt Locker, seem fairly consistent: there is the adrenaline-rush battle action, the anxiety about the price of war on a small, human scale, and the effort to render the sensations of war. The Messenger tends to defy the conventions of even the most well-intentioned war film, by focusing on what happens to soldiers and their families on the home front. In the process, this contemplative, subdued film shows that war is not an isolated event, but the beginning of a lifelong experience.

Screenwriter Oren Moverman (Jesus’ Son, I’m Not There), who is also a veteran of the Israeli military, makes his directorial debut in this war film with a quiet introspection and slowly-building emotional impact that suggests a collision of the best of indie and European art house sensibilities. The Messenger is authentic and artful, and unpretentious but philosophical, in its approach to difficult material.

Staff sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) has returned from Iraq physically, but the war has clearly dug into his consciousness. He relaxes to blasting music and exercises in solitude, while his apartment seems to be a personalized bunker where he can prepare himself to face the world outside.

For his new stateside mission in New Jersey, Will is paired up with an alcoholic, gung-ho, clenched-jaw vet Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), who has more of the hard exterior shell required to handle his assignment. And as bereavement notification officials, their job is to inform family members that their child has died in Iraq. Tony has some cold, hard-fast rules: No touching, get in and get out, stick to the script.

But with the agony of war still fresh in his head, Will is less willing to neatly choreograph how he and Tony approach the doors of strangers and deliver the worst news imaginable. Perhaps he sees that the script could be easily flipped, and some anonymous soldier could be informing his family of his death. Will is the messenger for some unpleasant news for us too: letting us know that the wars politicians like to tell us have a beginning and an end, are, for soldiers and their loved ones, in fact endless and terminal.

Thirty-year-old Ben Foster is a heartbreaker (and an unfortunate absence from this year’s Academy Award nominations), already damaged by war and rejection from an old girlfriend (Jena Malone). With his shaved head and crude tattoos, he looks like a warrior but behaves like a ghost, walking around in someone else’s reality and mystified by what he sees. It’s clear he’s still carrying his past experiences in Iraq with him, and it takes very little to revisit them again, as when he overhears a disturbing anecdote about the war from a drunk soldier in a bar. Delivering the news of a soldier’s death in a tidy manner is not his forte. The reactions of the families —despair, stunned incomprehension, fury in the case of one father (Steve Buscemi) — gets under his skin. He recognizes that this is not an in-and-out kind of maneuver.

His desire for a little more connection and closure inspires him, perhaps unwisely, to get closer to a vulnerable-seeming widow Olivia with a young child. Olivia (Samantha Morton, looking refreshingly plain and real) alerts Will to the layers of trauma and loss and guilt in death. Her response to the news of her husband’s death in Iraq is a kind of mystified stupor and a strange inability to react in any conventional, clear way. Will feels protective of her, but perhaps also intrigued by this unnaturally nonplussed woman. He offers her a ride one day, he shows up at her house.

A relationship develops that leaves us with complicated feelings too. Is he exploiting Olivia at her most vulnerable? Is Olivia able to just jump from one man to the next? In The Messenger, characters behave in unfamiliar, unexpected ways. Nothing about war and its effect on human beings is tidy or clear, and The Messenger is a film that honors that truth.