As if in rebuke to the conventional weepie, The Messenger commences with the application of medicinal eye drops. The dry eye belongs to decorated Iraq war veteran Will (Ben Foster), also afflicted with a limp and wry cynicism. With three months of service left, he is assigned the grim task of casualty notification. His mentor on this homeland mission is Tony (Woody Harrelson). "I have bad news," Harrelson recites robotically as he enters each suburban home and confronts various sobbing Next of Kin, instructing his protégé, "We do not touch the N.O.K." Another lesson: If you knock on the front door, the dead soldier's father may come around the side of the house, as if in ambush, and even more distractingly, be played by Steve Buscemi. "How come you're not dead?" he demands of Foster, literally spitting in the face of the Army. Two tragedies down, four to go!

This first feature by filmmaker Oren Moverman bears an uncanny resemblance to the year's other inauspicious directorial debut, Michael Keaton's The Merry Gentleman. In that film, Keaton stars as a suicidal hit man who finds dubious redemption by stalking a battered housewife. In The Messenger, Ben Foster stars as a suicidal Army man who finds dubious redemption by stalking a battered housewife. The Merry Gentleman dramatizes Christian faith as a dead end, while The Messenger gives a similarly dismissive sketch of the U.S. military. In this film, you can be a crippled vet like Will and Tony. Or you can be a bitter war widow like Olivia (Samantha Morton), who attracts our hero's interest. Or you can be Olivia's dead husband, who left a shirt smelling of soldierly "rage." Or you can be the party guests who assure Will that they "support the troops," while celebrating his girlfriend's engagement to another man. Rather than really examining the rift between civilian America and the people who volunteer their lives on its behalf, the filmmakers simply wallow in the gloom.

Will and Tony crash that engagement party and, at one point, Woody Harrelson can be glimpsed drunkenly combing his eyebrow with a fork! This stagey indulgence must be a common temptation for East Coast productions like The Messenger, which is no less drab than the films of Hollywood hacks trained in television. The director, going for European naturalism, films his New Jersey settings in looong takes, with no musical soundtrack. But the actors do not reward the attention. Just like in The Merry Gentleman, the climax fixes a character in slow zoom as he delivers a big confession. Foster drones on about a sunrise that revived his spirits, but at no point in the film are those spirits in evidence. Neither is the sunrise: The scene is one of many set in the funereal murk of Will's apartment. Even as romance brightens a young man's life, he is apparently too traumatized to turn the damn lights on. Do the filmmakers believe in their own happy ending? Sir, no, sir! R.

The Messenger

opens Friday at Fox Tower.