Hell And Back Again is a documentary set in North Carolina, southern Afghanistan, and the whiplash gap in between, summed up succinctly by that moment in The Hurt Locker in which Jeremy Renner, so confident in Iraq, returns home and is stymied by a grocery store’s giant cereal selection. Sergeant Nathan Harris, the 25-year-old focus of Danfung Dennis’ film, is a Marine who was deployed to combat the Taliban in the summer of 2009, and who took a bullet to his hip toward the end of his tour. Hell And Back Again cuts between his platoon’s time in Afghanistan, exchanging volleys with unseen enemies and liaising with locals who want to know when they’ll be able to plant their crops and care for their children without fear of getting caught in the crossfire, and Harris’ slow crawl toward recovery back in the U.S., as he struggles through rehabilitation and the realization that he won’t be going back to the field.
Dennis, a photojournalist, has produced a vérité work of almost distracting beauty—a haunting quality in a film that operates in the apolitical mode of choice for recent combat docs, but is nevertheless inarguably about the cost of war. The muted beige-on-beige of Afghanistan seems like a dream when inserted into Harris’ days of doctor visits, drive-through orders, errands at the fluorescent-lit Walmart, and time spent zonked out on the couch, KO’d by the painkillers to which he’s developing an addiction. A troubling, gorgeous segment toward the film’s end finds Echo Company engaged in a firefight during magic hour, huddling in a grassy ditch as the sun goes down in a golden, dusty haze. The men stop to retrieve a comrade’s body as one of them sobs. It’s a real death that looks like it’s happening in a Terrence Malick movie.
Harris seems sweet-natured and sincerely in love with his supportive wife, but he also shows tendencies that hint at instability, like his fondness for waving his gun around at home and tucking it under his mattress at night. Whether he’ll be able to settle into civilian life is left as an unanswered question; he says things like “I would rather be in Afghanistan where it’s simple,” suggesting the transition won’t come easily. But by layering audio from combat over shots of Harris battling through pain, Hell And Back Again implies PTSD possibly more than is warranted by what’s onscreen. The film portrays the dizzying divide between war and recovery eloquently enough that those choices seem like intrusions instead of connections, a misstep in what’s otherwise a devastating profile of a soldier.