In Debra Granik's Leave No Trace, Ben Foster plays Will, a veteran who has carved a home out of the wilds of Portland's Forest Park with his daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie). When park rangers discover their camp, the two begin a journey of self-discovery to find their new home. To play Will, Granik needed an actor who could capture the composure and resourcefulness of a father caring for his daughter in the wild, as well as a man whose inner demons make living among others nearly impossible. Foster seemed like the perfect actor. "He's a very committed, in-depth kind of actor," Granik explains, "I thought he'd have room to put that layered intensity he has into it." In The Hollywood Reporter, Jon Frosch points out, "Foster is a remarkably expressive, versatile performer, equally convincing playing febrile and wild-eyed (Alpha Dog,Hell or High Water) or courtly and inward (The Messenger, Ain't Them Bodies Saints)." Frosch points out the very roles that prepare him for capturing Will: "an authentically complex figure: gentle, sensitive, but also rigid." In playing Will, a war veteran, Foster also brings a genuine and passionate understanding of the difficulties facing soldiers, especially those returning home from service. "We did not overly articulate what Will is struggling with; his scars are internal," explains Foster, adding, "I've had the privilege of talking to a lot of brave men and women about this; I have friends who served and survived and have done a lot of healing."
Moving from Iowa to Los Angeles as a teenager, Foster was cast in traditional teen roles. He moved from appearing in Disney's TV show Flash Forward about friends in junior high to being the lead in the 2001 teen comedy Get Over It, a sort of high school musical version of A Midsummer's Night Dream, and then the bisexual art student in HBO's Six Feet Under. But in 2006, Foster showed his edge, distilling all that teenage angst into a terrifying feral energy in Nick Cassavetes's Alpha Dog. Loosely based on a true story, the film features Foster as Zack Mazursky, a meth-fueled skinhead distraught over his brother being kidnapped. Among a cast of exceptional young talent (including Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, and Anton Yelchin), Foster stood out. The New York Times' Manohla Dargis noted his "nervy, wonderfully far-out performance" and USA Today's Claudia Puig championed his "scary, tweaked-out ferocity." For Foster, the key to capturing a character that unhinged was to find the thing that centered him. "Every role, every gig, you have to find a quality and you have to love the person," he told CinemaBlend. "And not just like him but love the person so you can care about what they care about." That unique marriage of extreme behavior and dramatic empathy would become a hallmark of his talent.
In Oren Moverman's 2009 drama The Messenger, Foster plays Will Montgomery, a soldier back from Iraq who is reassigned as a casualty notification officer under Captain Stone (Woody Harrelson). Required to tell family members that their loved ones have been killed in action, Foster retreats into his character as those around him explode with grief and anger. Foster's implosive performance becomes all the more impactful for its calmness, placing him, according to The New York Times' A. O. Scott, "in the first rank of young American screen actors."
"Here in countless subtle ways, he suggests a human being with ordinary feelings who has been through painful experiences and is outwardly calm but not anywhere near healed," notes Roger Ebert. Foster's quiet dignity extended beyond the character to his insight about the film's subjects. "Listening to the soldiers tell their stories, both about the war and about their dedication to this country helped me find the character," Foster told InContention. "I learned so much humility making this film, to take a back seat to the characters we were inhabiting."
In Peter Berg's Lone Survivor, Foster plays Matthew "Axe" Axelson, one of the members of a four-man SEAL team sent into Afghanistan in 2005 to take down a Taliban leader responsible for the deaths of over twenty marines. Adapted from a memoir by Marcus Luttrell (the actual "lone survivor"), the film depicts the impossible struggle these ace soldiers-Axe, Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) and Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch)-endure in trying to find their way home after their mission goes south. In taking on the part, Foster felt the deep responsibility of portraying a man who was not only a soldier, but also deeply loved by those who knew him. After meeting with Axelson's family, Foster told them all, "I will take what you are sharing and I'm going to try to love that person like I had known him all my life, the way you loved your son, brother or husband." For IndieWire's Charlie Schmidlin, Foster lived up to his promise with a performance that "humanizes Axelson with a full-spirited passion and sensitive humor." While promoting the film, Foster found time to also speak out for all veterans, exclaiming, "We need to look at those coming home because they keep coming home. We need to serve those who served. Period."
In David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water, Foster plays Tanner, the wildcat brother of Toby (Chris Pine), a West Texas rancher who has started robbing banks to hold onto his family farm. In pursuit of the two-man crime spree is a Texas Ranger played by Jeff Bridges. Mixing classic motifs of independence and self-reliance with insights into modern issues, like bank malfeasance and predatory loan practices, the film reinvents the Western genre, but not its values. "With limited resources, you only have your will and your word and your courage to get you through," Foster explains to Deadline. Here, Foster again goes beyond the caricature of a crazed outlaw to find the man's heart. "Instead of simply having a short fuse, Foster adds the beats of frustration that both ignite that fuse, but also drive home the idea of brotherly love," explains Collider's Brian Formo. Foster won an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Male for his performance.