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MOVIE REVIEW: Hell and Back Again

Directed by Danfung Dennis

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Since the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began dominating our national headlines in 2002, countless documentaries have covered every angle of the modern combat and post-service experience. What distinguishes these topically similar films from one another is tone, ranging from the lyrical treatment of war in Iraq in Fragments to the gritty military humanism captured in Restrepo. Yet nearly all of these stories divide the experience of war from the harsh reality of returning home a damaged soul, as if the two were different narratives connected only by the viewer’s assumptions.

Dangfung Dennis’ stirring documentary Hell and Back Again is a direct rebuttal to this approach, fusing together its boots-on-the-ground perspective with the difficult realities of post-war life as something forever linked by the unflinching power of memory and trauma.

This structure is achieved through the use of sound bridges and visual graphic matches, defining aesthetics that help tell the fractured story of wounded U.S. Marine Nathan Harris and his dedicated wife Ashley. This uniquely American couple shares the burden of physical rehabilitation, emotional distress, and economic uncertainty on a daily basis. For them, battlefield and home front are one in the same.

Hell and Back Again understands the importance of context, beginning with a prologue about U.S. Marine Echo Company’s mission in one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan. The opening sequence charts Nathan and his men’s helicopter touchdown near a small farming community, a forward assault that is immediately met with Taliban resistance.

Raw combat footage is masterfully woven together to amplify the lengthy moments of uneasy calm interrupted by sudden blasts of off-screen gunfire. Soldiers stumble through mud, their heads on a swivel trying to pinpoint the area of fire. The chaotic movement is given a poetic feel by Dennis’ amazingly fluid steady-cam, an entrancing and disturbing juxtaposition of tones that is unmistakably affecting.

The film jumps forward to the end of Nathan’s deployment when his hip is shattered by a bullet two weeks before he’s slated to return stateside. A bittersweet homecoming follows, and for the duration of the film Dennis examines the daily routine of Nathan and Ashley as they deal with the impending complications of his injury. Rehabilitation looms, both the physical and mental kind, and Nathan faces the possibility of prescription drug addiction, depression, and survivor guilt.

As Nathan shows off his horrific wound to anyone who will listen (including a Wal-Mart greeter), we get the sense he's trying to make sense of the trauma by sharing it with others. Throughout each scene, Ashley attempts to help her husband through the daily rigor. The results are sometimes quite beautiful, but in some moments, when Nathan shows signs of becoming a self-destructive monster, their relationship delves into some disheartening territory.

In the end, what makes Hell and Back Again so interesting is how Dennis intertwines footage of Nathan in combat with his time at home, connecting divergent and temporally separate sequences via subject matter and theme. One example stands above the rest: we see Nathan using a walker to move through a doorway in his house when suddenly the sounds of radio chatter and running footsteps flood the space.

The film cuts to a uniformed Nathan months before smashing through a barrier during a military raid, following his memory down a dark rabbit hole into the past. Challenging as it may be, this dream-like approach to Nathan’s perspective is both formally stunning and emotionally revelatory, confirming Hell and Back Again as a formidable examination of cyclical trauma. It's essential viewing.

Hell and Back Again opens for a limited one-week run at the Landmark Ken Cinemas on November 4, 2011.