Ursula K. LeGuin wrote that war is the opposite of civilization — you have one or the other, not both. Clément Cogitore‘s debut feature, Neither Heaven Nor Earth, takes this sentiment to its isolated conclusion through vaguely supernatural means. It is otherworldly in narrative and visual approach: the rocky valleys, the night vision goggles, and uneasy failing of rationality make us realize things operate differently here. If The Hurt Locker takes place on the other side of the world, Neither Heaven Nor Earth is on Mars. A French army section (rather than an American platoon) are stationed in Afghanistan, led by a gruff yet caring captain (Jérémie Renier), to keep the peace and protect a local village from the Taliban.

Their watch is endless and even more important in the dead of night as they’re sequestered in their three tiny posts, walkie talkies filling in for humanity. These are soldiers of affection, not adrenaline. They detest the thrill and love simple things: dogs, beer, and the wives waiting for them at home. Then they start disappearing, leaving nothing but clothing behind, as if alien abductees. Tying in interestingly to the case of American Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl who abandoned his post and was captured, what follows are the casting of suspicions and the doubling-down of security precautions. No more soldiers lost.

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The orderly French decisions focus on blocking themselves off — blocked phone lines that inhibited news from the absent, heat-blocking space blankets that make it impossible to see humans with heat-vision, blocked-up entrances and exits from the posts — into deeper and deeper isolation.

While its eventual conclusion is unsatisfactory for a mystery of this ambition and originality, Neither Heaven Nor Earth still finds beauty and horror in its thematic explorations of the culture clash where civilization meets war, its polar foe. One translator links the villagers and the army, the sole point of communication between two fearful opposites. The film positions us to view these differences as key to the plot, making a shepherding tradition into a question of curses. Did a community rise up against its invaders the only way they knew how? We’re tossed into a genre eddy where our guesses and speculations shape the film more than the film does itself.

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When the dust settles, however, Neither Heaven Nor Earth is clearly a military horror movie, a slow burn of tension and unease. Both sides are missing men and are mistrustful of their companions in loss. War, violence, and the faceless vacuum of power in the Middle East have been personified by an unknown force. The stubbornness of both parties results in more and more loss. The Taliban and soldiers react to their fear as proud men always react to fear: selfishly.

Sending away a chaplain is the closest Cogitore ever gets to the overt battle between good and evil of an exorcism film. A new, unwelcome power is rejected by the forces that already have their claws in their prey. Though these forces may be purely emotional, their grip is real and as terribly potent as any demon. Neither Heaven Nor Earth transports you to a world where you believe anything could happen because it effectively paints wartime life so closely to supernatural terror. War may quite literally be hell.

Neither Heaven Nor Earth enters a limited release on Friday, August 5.

Grade: B

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