War is hell. It’s also tedious; filled with long stretches of monotony and information gathering, punctured with occasional activity. It’s enough to make you go a little mad, and in the case of “Neither Heaven Nor Earth” no one’s sure what is what.
The film begins in 2014, just before the withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan. Captain Antarès Bonassieu (Jérémie Renier) and his squad are assigned to monitor a remote valley in Wakhan, just on the border of Pakistan, and find themselves killing time in the calm sector through drinking beer, lifting weights, and negotiating with the nearby village. But when Bonasseiu’s men start disappearing without a trace, the French soldiers quickly find their control of the region—and their minds—crumbling.
In the rather young genre of Middle East war movies, “Neither Heaven Nor Earth” stands out for its intriguing and disquieting premise alone. Desolation and exhaustion can easily breed tension, and paranoia lurks right around the corner. Though the premise can’t fully deliver, director and co-writer Clément Cogitore’s direction still milks a lot of goodness out of it.
For the first half of the film there’s no mention of home for these troops—save for Antares telling a young soldier that he needs sangfroid, not a chaplain for a benediction, and even then it’s only a passing mention. Cogitore bypasses the usual attempts at culture shock, keeping the elements of war mundane but ever-present. This stand in Afghanistan is their life; this valley all they speak of.
Even when they aren’t explicitly saying it, Cogitore’s methodical use of the alternately spooky and harsh use of the camera keeps the rugged reality the war laced in every conversation. He initially keeps his shots wider, bringing the surroundings into every frame, letting the camera shake like it’s a point of view, and using night vision filters to make scenes feel like an eerie home movie. By the time people are going missing the camera’s role is more than just another soldier; it’s a witness. The audience’s confirmation that a missing man didn’t walk out the door, or desert his post. Only then does the camera work pull closer, emphasizing the stellar work of Renier’s performance as a leader unraveling against a mysterious force.
Unfortunately, the screenplay doesn’t quite keep up. Cogitore and co-writer Thomas Bidegain are less interested in the why of it all, offering up possible explanations in the narrative but no confirmations, in favor of a heady character study. Problem is, none of the men develop very distinctive personalities, save for Bonasseiu and a handful of moments from supporting characters, which makes it hard for the narrative bomb to truly detonate. And so although it manages to keep its unnerving and atmospheric gravity, “Neither Heaven Nor Earth” loses its teeth a bit in the final act.
There’s plenty to appreciate during the film’s stay in the Twilight War Zone; it’s affecting even as it is a bit lost in its own philosophical musings by the end. It’s got a stellar understanding of ambiance, and an innate ability to play in the note of dread. If nothing else it’s a broadening the lexicon of films about Middle Eastern combat and breaking up the pack of U.S. films on the issue. But like Bonasseiu, audiences might left with more questions than answers. And it may drive them a little mad.