Hell and Back Again | Film review
The story of a traumatized marine is closer to Martha Marcy May Marlene than it is to other Afghanistan docs.
As a member of the United States Marine Corps’ Echo Company, Sgt. Nathan Harris took part in one of the most violent operations in the Afghanistan war. That was easy. The crowd at Wal-Mart? That’s hard. Weeks after a bullet to the hip prematurely ended his military career, Harris, in a wheelchair and doped up on pain meds, surveys a packed shopping-center parking lot and wishes he were still overseas, “where things are simple.”
Very few things are simple about Hell and Back Again, a haunting documentary on Harris’s life in and out of war. Its structure hews more closely to the story of the traumatized cult survivor from Martha Marcy May Marlene than that of other Afghanistan docs, like Restrepo and Armadillo. Using match cuts and sound dissolves, director Danfung Dennis takes us inside Sgt. Harris’s psyche, weaving back and forth between his heroic efforts on the battlefield and his more mundane but equally difficult challenges at home.
Dennis’s footage in both timelines emphasizes bodies in motion, contrasting the Marines’ confident marches through Middle Eastern villages with Harris’s struggle to walk with a cane down the corridor of a North Carolina veterans’ hospital. The scenes of chaos and bloodshed are chilling, but Dennis finds his most upsetting images on the home front, where Harris fills the hole the war left in his soul with prescription opiates and games of Russian roulette. The Hurt Locker showed us that war is a drug. Hell and Back Again demonstrates how hard it is to go cold turkey. (Available on VOD Tue 24.)