As attendants to the Army's Casualty Notification service, the soldiers seem like casualties themselves, dissociated from the grim reality they must unload on unwitting families, their hearts necessarily shellacked in ice, their minds off to distant unformed thoughts.
In a way, what better project for Israeli director Oren Moverman?
For it was "I'm Not There," the split-screen, split personality of a sophisticated assault on the senses and seismic voices of Bob Dylan that marked Moverman as a new mover and shaker on solid Hollywood ground.
Good title, that "I'm Not There," he says with a smile in his voice. But since that was taken, he chuckles, that explains why this film is called "The Messenger," opening Nov. 20.
Shooting "The Messenger" brought him back to the war games of which he certainly knew the rules: Moverman served four years with the Israeli army before moving to New York in 1988.
Those memories — those battle cries of discomfort distorted by time — play background music now to his first directorial feature.
"Impacted? Yes, I understood the idea of being the 'other' — of trying to dissociate oneself from what is before you," he says of having seen war waged. "And also the problems of reintegrating into society."
Yet a Sign of Hope
The men of "The Messenger" — portrayed by Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster — foster an insouciance about their interests in the news they convey. But there is no denying its subliminal effect on their senses.
"There was always a need to disconnect," says the director of his own real war games played out in Lebanon in the 1980s.
But there is also the unexpected connection; Harrelson's and Foster's characters care about each other, two grunts stuck in the same mud.
In a way, concedes Moverman, "it is a love story."
"There are many ways to convey a love story," says Moverman. "And the military in this instance provides one of them."
Not of the don't-ask-don't-tell variety; more of the please-help- me/we're-in-this-crap-together type.
"It's all about camaraderie."
It all hit home for Moverman: "I experienced it in Israel; in a way it's a false friendship" that dissipates once service is over and the sense of solidarity is undone by a lack of common cause.
"It's like what happens with jury duty," he says of friendship forged, then forgotten. "Everybody goes in a different direction."
The direction of "The Messenger" is low key, high impact. Different nations greet it with different concerns.
"When it was shown at the Jerusalem Film Festival," he says, "everyone assumed there that it was made because of my Israeli experience."
The sorrow and the pity of it all is that some audiences may be scared off by its setting; the Iraq war as theme has detonated more than bombs along Hollywood's hills.
Indeed, audiences have bagged any movies about Baghdad this year; maybe the far-off war just hits too close to home.
But then, Moverman admits: "I did not make an Iraq movie."
What he made, he emphasizes, may not even be a love story, "but," he restates, "a story about love."