Review: ‘Neither Heaven Nor Earth’ mines the middle ground of soldiers’ psyche during war


War movies generally divide their psychological card-dealing along standard lines: Frontline stories handle the knife’s-edge survival tension, while post-war tales confront the mental fallout. What makes French filmmaker Clément Cogitore’s feature debut “Neither Heaven Nor Earth” so striking is how it fuses the two together, giving a haunted, metaphysical dusting to the day-in/day-out pressure of active-duty lives. The result is one of the more unusual and effective explorations of modern war and its capacity for bewilderment and piercing damage.

Few would argue that the 21st century Afghanistan conflict, as waged in its most secluded regions, is a singular mix of cultural isolation, ancient tradition and ingenious technological connectedness. In a remote valley sparsely populated by hillside shepherds, French army Capt. Antarès Bonassieu (Jérémie Renier) and his men monitor the area for Taliban encroachment from a base and a pair of tiny outposts. The terrain is unforgiving, the locals can be both accommodating and a nuisance, but faith in the squad’s state-of-the-art heat-detecting night-vision goggles give the men a sense of watchful superiority in their task. With troop withdrawal fast approaching, it feels more like a waiting game than a mission.

First, a friendly wandering dog goes missing, which spurs a brief but lax search among the men. But then two soldiers disappear from their post overnight, and suddenly Bonassieu is faced with the possibility of either a hostage situation or a pair of AWOL men. Tensions escalate with the villagers, and after another of Bonassieu’s men vanishes — in broad daylight no less — the squad’s investigation turns toward areas of speculation that lead them to question everything about their presence and purpose there. Even the other side’s men are disappearing, it seems, which sparks an unusual cease-fire negotiation with the enemy so each can search the other’s sectors.


“Neither Heaven Nor Earth” is a case of the inexplicable rendered without forced mysticism or explanation, but rather explored with a clinical dramatic focus that somehow boosts the eeriness. Cogitore and co-screenwriter Thomas Bidegain (a frequent collaborator of Jacques Audiard’s) routinely upend our notion of where danger lies in a combat film.

A soldier steps outside the confines of his dark post to urinate. We watch him, thinking the open air is where someone is most vulnerable, but it’s the drowsy colleague he briefly left behind inside who isn’t there upon return. Later, an interrogated village boy spins his trust in Allah into an explanation for the disappearances that quietly unnerves with the force of handed-down lore. Even shots taken from the point of view of a soldier’s precious night-vision headgear — the “cool” images of countless rah-rah action flicks — take on an unreliably otherworldly quality as the men realize how ineffective these gadgets are at fully detailing their surroundings.

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What’s an army captain to do, presented with the unbelievable and unexplainable in a land of usually stark reality? As briskly paced as “Neither Heaven Nor Earth” is, the questions it asks and theoretical links it makes to so many distressing issues regarding the waging of war — mainly about engagement and loss — are at times breathtaking. But the metaphysical punch also threatens to overwhelm the characterizations, which outside of Renier’s embattled, confused and ultimately desperate Bonassieu, aren’t terribly thorough.

Still, a movie this confident in its blend of the supernatural, the philosophical and the grounded — without telling us what to think — is rare indeed, especially in a first film. “Neither Heaven Nor Earth” is a war movie that eschews body count for a more inward crumbling of belief, like a mournful dispatch from the unruly realm between faith and certainty.


‘Neither Heaven Nor Earth’


In French with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles


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