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Movie review: 'Hell and Back Again'

"Hell and Back Again" is a full-circle portrait of rare psychological immediacy and even rarer aesthetic command.

October 14, 2011|By Robert Abele
  • Danfung Dennis reveals the devastating impact a Taliban machine-gun bullet has on the life of 25-year-old Sergeant Nathan Harris.
Danfung Dennis reveals the devastating impact a Taliban machine-gun bullet… (Docuweeks L.A. )

Artistic reach meets hypnotic intimacy in Danfung Dennis' vital war documentary "Hell and Back Again."

Dennis, a noted war photographer, was embedded with a U.S. Marine unit as they dropped behind enemy lines in southern Afghanistan for a major offensive. When 25-year-old Sgt. Nathan Harris was wounded by a bullet to the hip, Dennis took his camera to North Carolina to film his reintegration into a life of Wal-Mart runs, physical therapy, creeping pill dependence and disturbing gun love, all while his supportive wife, Ashley, nervously stands by.

The result is a hauntingly bifurcated work, as Dennis uses visual parallels between his tense, you-are-there battlefield footage and homefront scenes of anxiety-ridden mundanity to create a flashback-jolting sense of Harris' emotionally fraught transition.

Some may balk at manipulating captured life for such blatantly subjective ends, but Dennis' skill at cutting image and sound — letting the noise of war bleed into home scenes, for example, or matching Harris' daily struggles in suburbia with the adrenaline rush of combat — has such empathetic purpose it has the power to devastate.

"Hell and Back Again" is a full-circle portrait of rare psychological immediacy and even rarer aesthetic command, assets that wrest our forever war's legacy from the twin arenas of easy patriotism and political theater, and rightly returns its focus to the men and women struggling with it every day.


"Hell and Back Again." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes. At Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex, Santa Monica.

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