Much in the way that the scariest scene in The Hurt Locker was Jeremy Renner at a Costco trying to pick a breakfast cereal, Danfung Dennis’ unsettling documentary Hell And Back Again makes it plain that for a certain breed of soldier, the horrors of war are nothing compared with the agonizing readjustment to civilian life.
In the fall of 2009, 25-year-old Sargent Nathan Harris was shot in the hip, shattering it and requiring a titanium rod in his leg. Dennis’ astonishingly photographed picture (shot by the director himself on a Canon 5D Mark II) follows the young soldier through a maddeningly long stretch of rehabilitation back home in North Carolina.
Elliptically cross-cutting between harrowing in country firefights and mundane day-to-day tasks, Hell And Back Again conjures (perhaps too many times) the sense of psychological whiplash endured by young men like Harris every day. He’s a career soldier, and that’s all he ever wanted to be. As the film wears on, we can only watch in sadness as Harris slowly realizes he’s never going back to the front lines.
The combat sequences are almost distractingly beautiful. Dennis eschews the standard shaky-cam war photography cliche in favor of still, thoughtfully composed frames. You’ve never seen Afghanistan like this before, its barren ugly spaces punctuated by the occasional jarringly verdant tree. Indeed, the camerawork during battle is almost too unruffled. (If I didn’t know better, I’d think it was staged.)
Presumably by design, sequences on the home front are far less settled. Harris grows increasingly despondent, showing hints of a dependency on pain pills and an unnerving attachment to his guns. (A chilling moment finds him loopy, posing for a MySpace profile picture with a pistol in each hand.) Harris shoots the unnervingly dead landscape of Wal-Mart the same way Bigelow did in The Hurt Locker.
Hell And Back Again’s most frightening moment arrives not far into the film, as the newly returned soldier sits idly in a fast food drive-through line, the banality of his friends’ laboriously long order triggering quicksilver flashbacks to the front. The point is made early, and often.