Hell and Back Again: A soldier's harrowing return forms one of the year's best documentaries 

The Battle Back Home

The Battle Back Home

Marine Corps Sgt. Nathan Harris is barking orders to his men in Afghanistan. He is giving his order at a drive-thru, fighting flashbacks brought on by the voices converging at the window. He is riding down a desert road with his gun at the ready. He is sitting in the passenger seat, on the edge of rage as he and his wife search for a parking spot at Walmart. He is lying on his back, staring at the Afghan sky and reminding himself to breathe. He is lying in bed, telling his wife about the day he got shot.

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Danfung Dennis' Hell and Back Again is the latest in a string of remarkable documentaries from the frontlines of the war on terror. What makes Dennis' film uniquely devastating is that, like the horrors of war, it follows its subject home. At war, it is reminiscent of 2010's Sundance award-winner Restrepo. At home, it achieves the noble aim of 2009's drama Brothers in getting us to consider the impact of the sacrifices made on our behalf, on the people who actually make them. As financiers of the war effort, we should be required to watch it.

For those of us unfamiliar with the battlefield, and what it's like to return home from it, Hell and Back Again is as close as we'll come to understanding without actually taking a bullet. For 88 minutes, we are pulled back and forth, from home to war zone and back again, without warning. And as his devoted wife, Ashley, looks on, so is Sgt. Harris. Having suffered a gunshot wound to the hip, he's come home from deployment deep behind enemy lines. He is dependent on Ashley and, increasingly, medication. His now-fragile body is matched by a fragile psyche — even something as mundane as car passengers talking can send him, and us, right back to Afghanistan.

As a photojournalist, Dennis has more than justified his profession here, as words seem wholly inadequate to express what his film shows. Among the images you're unlikely to forget are those of Harris waving a pistol as he drives down the road, or the soldier playing Call of Duty as the fictional war on screen is juxtaposed with scenes from Afghanistan.

That's not to say that the film isn't brimming with memorable words as well. Circling a Walmart parking lot, in search of an empty space, Harris remarks that "it's almost more simple to do all that stuff [in Afghanistan] than to be here dealing with this shit." In another moment, he explains the grim truth of war: "If I do everything right and my men do everything right — I could still die." If you feel a knot in your stomach at the end of Dennis' documentary, it's the haunting feeling that for Harris and all his comrades, there may be no such thing as "back to normal."

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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