With some documentaries, you can feel the filmmakers hit a wall. They have a great subject - the war in Afghanistan, say - and they have a point to make or an angle to pursue. But, despite the proliferation of talking heads, they can’t find a style or a voice. The heads talk, but the movie doesn’t speak. Danfung Dennis doesn’t appear to have a limit. It’s as if he’s seen (or knows we’ve seen) some of these movies and understands that the flavorlessness of even the most well-meant, clearly articulated filmmaking can leave you unroused, undisturbed, indifferent to what you’re being told and shown.
Conversely, his film, “Hell and Back Again,’’ is an ingenious artistic disturbance. It’s a combat film and a coming-home movie, chiefly about a Marine named Nathan Harris, who’s critically wounded in Afghanistan and struggling to re-adjust to both the brutal drabness of civilian life in North Carolina and the depressing state of his lower body. Harris’s condition has provided the basis of the stories and movies and books. But Dennis’s film attempts something few documentaries have: to inhabit the psyche of its subject.
Harris is a small, sleepy, increasingly addled guy. His hip was shattered, he’s taking at least nine prescription medications, and, as he recovers, he uses a walker to get around. Cruising a Walmart parking lot with his wife, Ashley, he can sense that this monotonous anticlimax could last the rest of his life and says he’d truly rather be in Afghanistan hunting for something besides a spot to leave the car. Inside the store, he glides through the aisles on a motorized cart. He stops to admire digital cameras and makes Ashley pretend she’s at a photo shoot. Then in the video-game section, something appears to happen.
Harris stares up into a looming case, where a copy of “Call of Duty 4’’ awaits, and, for several seconds, the camera lingers on his gaze, which turns distant. As he stares yonder, we hear his voice on the soundtrack, then we’re back in Afghanistan on a beautiful-looking day hunting insurgents. This is Dennis’s innovation: a documentary war flashback. Who knows whether what we’re seeing is actually what’s on Harris’s mind in that moment. But he’s given Dennis and Dennis’s editor, Fiona Otway, the license to imply as much. Suddenly, ordinary deployment footage is recast as living memory.
Of course, whatever has crossed Harris’s mind just then doesn’t stop him from purchasing the game. The “flashback’’ cuts to a scene from “Call of Duty 4,’’ which Harris plays at home. It must seem like nothing compared to the real thing. Or maybe the combat is all he knows, and the virtual shooting is a kind of psychic salve. (Indeed, when we see him in bed with Ashley, he’s instructing her in how to shoot a pistol.)
While Ashley places an order at a fast-food drive-through, Harris dozes off up front, and we’re back at another war scene. But that one is briefer. It’s an actual flash. Less than a minute later, we’re back in the car. Harris is slumped over in the passenger seat and the camera is behind the wheel, literally and perhaps otherwise (we don’t actually know who’s driven to this burger joint). Still, Dennis doesn’t abuse his license.
The movie doesn’t purport to know exactly what thoughts are clouding Harris’s head. But what you sense in the device is that these flashbacks are mutual. Harris doesn’t appear in all of them, for one thing. They’re scenes of Marines stalking Taliban; negotiating with the aggravated, stressed out Afghans the American military has displaced; hauling the corpse of a severely maimed comrade onto a stretcher. Dennis, a photographer who shot the film and constructed the eerie sound design, might be flashing back, too.
Often with war-movie photography, the camera achieves personification - it’s as if what we’re seeing is from the point of view of the combatants, that the filmmakers are one of the troops. That strategy lends immediacy to the proceedings but fosters false identification. We’re allowed to trail these men and lie beside them as they fire at unseen enemies, and we believe we’re with them, that in some small way we can understand what they’re doing.
This movie makes a tactical adjustment. Dennis’s camera seems as if it’s arrived from another planet. It floats, levitates, swivels, and buoy-bobs as if it were watching firefights and downed men and frantic, purposeful marching through the eyes of a computer-generated orb in a science-fiction adventure.
This is not to say that Dennis is going for detachment, per se. He wants the opposite: to make us feel anew the dread and craziness we’ve experienced, as moviegoers, over and over before. He wants it to feel foreign to us because it is. He wants us to know what Harris aches to get back to. So that visual strategy works almost even better in North Carolina. Harris is home. But he’s on another planet.