"Like last month's Where Soldiers Come From, director Danfung Dennis's Hell and Back Again seeks to document the personal experience of war with extreme and sustained intimacy," writes Michelle Orange in the Voice. "The nightmare-vivid combat footage Dennis shot over the so-called Summer of Decision in 2009, while he was embedded with a Marine battalion behind enemy lines in southern Afghanistan, is only one part of that experience. Back on the home front, injured 25-year-old sergeant Nathan Harris becomes the nexus of an essential documentary that deploys a boldly cinematic arsenal to penetrate the indifference Dennis, a veteran of sorts himself after years spent as a photojournalist in Iraq and Afghanistan, believes most Americans feel toward the forever wars."
"The film cuts back and forth between Mr Dennis's visceral battlefront footage and Sergeant Harris's rehabilitation, to jolting effect," finds Neil Genzlinger in the New York Times. "You can feel just how jarring and stressful it must be for a soldier to go from the life-and-death adrenaline rush of war to the maddeningly slow world of rehabilitation and forced inactivity."
Keith Uhlich in Time Out New York: "There's a hint of Kubrick in the vérité cinematography, especially in the way the camera sweeps through the Afghani landscape whenever gunfire erupts (practically a DIY Paths of Glory) or how a Walmart is made to look like a glinting, Shining-like labyrinth…. Several scenes involving US soldiers conversing with local village elders speak volumes about the miscommunications that undermine both sides' good intentions. And watching the formerly spry Harris struggle to maintain a normal life (he's frequently glassy-eyed and jacked on painkillers) emphasizes the underappreciated sacrifices our men and women in uniform make in the name of vaguely defined ideals."
"Hell and Back Again does have a resounding echo of 'is this worth it' ringing through it," notes Ryan Wells at Cinespect.
For Lauren Wissot, writing in Slant, "the sound design by J Ralph, another indie-film vet, is often too much of a good thing. Bringing the audience into Nathan's head may be a great idea in theory, but listening to a doctor's voice fade in and out as he cautions Nathan against opiate addiction is both distracting and obvious… But as Nathan plays with loaded guns like they're toys and Ashley reveals that her husband turns in to a different person sometimes (and that only their love has kept them together — that they've been to hell and back), Dennis's doc becomes a universal soldier's story. Like many a military spouse, Ashley doesn't realize that her husband actually is a different person, and that the man she married will never be returning home. Heartbreakingly, she isn't yet aware that they're still in hell."
This winner of two awards at Sundance (World Cinema Jury Prize: Documentary and World Cinema Cinematography Award: Documentary) opens today at Film Forum and runs through October 18. Screenings throughout the country as well as in London and parts of Europe and Australia follow on through December.
Updates: Back in January, Anthony Kaufman, writing for Screen, noted that the film's visual and aural strategy produces "a highly subjective, even hallucinatory vision of one man's lived contradiction, trapped between war and peace, the intense and the prosaic, the sounds of gunshots and screaming military commands bouncing inside his head (as heard on the soundtrack) verses his wife ordering fast food items at a drive-through window." Today, he adds: "I don't think it always works, but it does make Hell and Back Again one of the few docs about the war to try to get at the subject from an impressionist and internal perspective, avoiding the facts of battle for its more palpable, visceral horrors."
"Possibly the best war movie of the year," declares indieWIRE's Eric Kohn.
Updates, 10/6: "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." At the AV Club, Alison Willmore also finds that "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."
Interviews with Dennis: Brandon Harris (Filmmaker) and Nigel M Smith (indieWIRE).
Update, 10/7: "There have been several powerful war documentaries about the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq (I'd put Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger's Restrepo and Janus Metz's Armadillo at the top of the list), but perhaps none with the intimate, human, tragic and sympathetic impact of Hell and Back Again," writes Salon's Andrew O'Hehir.
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