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May 12, 2014

Hell and Back Again

by Franz Patrick


Hell and Back Again (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

One of the images that stuck with me since watching Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” was when Sergeant William James, who has since returned to the U.S. by the end of the film, visited a supermarket and stood in front of towering boxes of cereals. He was there but he wasn’t really there. I wanted to know more about the shell of a man that returned.

“Hell and Back Again,” directed by Danfung Dennis, turns its attention on Sergeant Nathan Harris’ return to North Carolina after he has been severely injured in Afghanistan. Doped up on pain medication for most of the time, we observe what the war has done to him physically and psychologically. Also, we see that his change in personality has started to affect his relationship with his wife.

The documentary employs some interesting techniques. Most prominent is its tendency to overlap the events that happened in Afghanistan prior to Sgt. Harris’ injury and the marine’s return to his home and loved ones. In addition, a mishmash of dialogue is used to further underline the confusion shown on screen. These are effective tools because they communicate to us very clearly that even though Sgt. Harris is no longer in the Middle East physically, his mind cannot help but linger in the past. He is so haunted by his profession that sometimes the things he says and does make us question whether he should be allowed to serve again after he recovers. Yes, he feels he has a responsibility for his country. But I say that his country should also be responsible for him, too.

A memorable early scene takes place at Wal-Mart. First, it shows Sgt. Harris’ willingness to speak to total strangers about his injury and revealing to them his graphic stitches. Second, Sgt. Harris considering to buy a first-person shooter game conveys how much he misses being out on the field. Both are executed in a rather sensitive and lighthearted tone but the underbelly of the images suggests questions worth contemplating.

The person I identified with the most is Ashley, Sgt. Harris’ wife. It is a shame that it is only until the end that she is asked what she thinks about the recent changes in her husband. I wished that the director had checked in with her more often. She knows Nathan more than we do and she would have been the perfect conduit between the subject and us. I wanted to know about a lot of things. For instance, how did she feel with having to be his caretaker–driving him from place to place, keeping track and handing him his medications, even helping him get changed. Notice that there are significantly more times when we see her doing something for him than the two of them being intimate. How is their sex life?

The film inspires us to bring up a lot of questions from the pool of details presented and we are urged to make our own conclusions, like how we might feel if we were Sgt. Harris or what we might do if we were Ashley. This is appropriate because answers may vary depending on the person.

The image that I will carry with me after watching “Hell and Back Again” involves a shell that did not make it back to America alive. A mangled corpse being scooped up, his limbs almost like intertwined noodles, and being carried away made me feel like I was out of my body for about a second or two. The sound of a nearby marine wailing jolted me back into awareness.

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