Photojournalist-turned-filmmaker Danfung Dennis’ “Hell and Back Again” vigorously embraces a grunt’s eye view of war and its aftereffects. Similar in its battlefield passages to last year’s Danish-made “Armadillo,” Dennis’ film scores a layered perspective that follows Marine Sgt. Nathan Harris into combat and back home, where he’s rehabbing from severe leg injuries. The effect is to provide the viewer with a cinematic sense of a soldier’s traumatic flashbacks, though such grim material — and aud’s distaste of recent war topics — likely will be B.O. poison.
Dennis embedded himself (with his custom-rigged digital SLR Canon 5D Mark II camera, producing stunning images of uncommon coloristic richness and depth) with Harris’ Marine platoon during the summer 2009 counterinsurgency against Taliban in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand River Valley. Opening passage doesn’t train on Harris but rather establishes combat’s sheer chaotic, sometimes deadly, rhythms.
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Just before finishing a six-month stint, Harris was wounded (off-camera) by a bullet that tore into his right hip and shattered parts of his leg. The rehabbing warrior, cared for by patient wife Ashley, is first seen in any detail going through his giant bag of meds, including Oxy-Contin. During a trek to Wal-Mart Harris complains about the heavy parking-lot traffic and the sheer complications of modern life, which he’d trade in a second for Afghanistan, “where it’s simple.” His mood soon changes when an elderly Wal-Mart greeter hugs him.
Dennis and editor Fiona Otway establish a pattern of cutting between Harris’ glum present of grueling, day-to-day physical therapy and seemingly sexless life with Ashley, to battlefield operations, where he’s fully in charge of his unit. The impact isn’t so much to shock audiences with the violent spasms of combat — though there are plenty of those disturbing”Armadillo”-like moments — as to show why Harris feels more naturally at home leading men in war than he does as a vulnerable invalid in a rather cold and lonely America.
This notion, readily embraced by many grunts, has rarely been honestly captured in movies, outside of those by Sam Fuller. It’s the achievement of “Hell and Back Again” that what sounds to the civilian like macho boasting or emotional cover is in fact the honest truth. Harris exudes such confidence in the field that the viewer is rarely concerned for Dennis’ safety, even though he exposes himself to extraordinary danger.
The images he brings back are painterly and expressive, both exceptionally real in their photojournalistic quality and physically vivid as cinema. Composer J. Ralph’s choice to minimize his music on the soundtrack is wise, but his sound design, often overlapping sounds of wartime with images of the homefront (and vice versa), is a triumph.