War in the Middle East has been covered ad nauseam on the big screen, but while the majority of releases that opt to tackle this sensitive topic — including Oscar winner The Hurt Locker — tend to center on the visceral nature of battle and the psychological effects that the experience has on members of the military, few use the circumstances of war in a foreign land as a device to raise spiritual and religious questions as directly as Neither Heaven Nor Earth. In that regard, the film — now playing in select theaters — is undoubtedly a triumph, despite the divisiveness it is likely to elicit from viewers.
Jérémie Renier — whose own name bears a striking resemblance to The Hurt Locker star Jeremy Renner, coincidentally enough — stars in this French Belgian release as Capitaine Antarès Bonassieu, leader of a battalion of French troops stationed within Afghanistan’s Wakhan District in 2014. As Bonassieu and his men tend to their post, a confounding mystery arises that sees some of Bonassieu’s men begin to inexplicably vanish near the Pakistani border.
Fans of Renier’s work in Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne productions like La Promesse and L’Enfant will be pleased with his performance here, seeing as the actor is present in nearly every scene and the driving force behind the film throughout.
With Neither Heaven Nor Earth, filmmaker Clément Cogitore makes his feature directorial debut, and given the control with which his film balances its thematic material and a fittingly somber visual palette, it’s hard to believe that Cogitore is this new to the game. Originally premiering at last year’s Cannes Film Festival as The Wakhan Front, the film feels more in line with the reality of war than the bulk of Hollywood releases would have us believe and bodes well for his future behind the camera. Aside from some stylish night-vision sequences, Neither Heaven Nor Earth is an exercise in restraint, lending it a grounded vibe that nicely complements the situation at hand.
However, therein lies the conundrum that will very likely result in a divisive response to the film, especially from mainstream audiences. While its sole focus on the central mystery allows Neither Heaven Nor Earth plenty of time to mull over the greater implications behind the soldiers’ mysterious disappearance, the bulk of the film is devoted to a search for answers that — rather than unraveling a series of increasingly revealing clues — ultimately serves primarily as a vehicle for the characters (and viewers alike) to reflect on larger issues stemming from the soldiers’ presence in Afghanistan and how their war effort takes a toll on the land itself.
Although some films are preoccupied with plot or character, Neither Heaven Nor Earth is one that quite blatantly puts theme on a pedestal nearly every step of the way. Throughout its runtime, the film touches on not only issues of religious and spiritual significance but also the culture clash that inevitably occurs when troops set up camp in a foreign nation. At a certain point, the film even directly addresses one of the most divisive questions surrounding war efforts in recent years, calling into question whether or not military presence abroad is even justified to begin with.
Much like The Witch may have let down horror fans expecting a more intense frightfest, Neither Heaven Nor Earth could very well disappoint moviegoers craving a shoot-em-up action-heavy war film. Yet, Cogitore’s release has more on its mind than carnage — in fact, there’s virtually no action in the film at all — and dares to address its controversial subject matter from a different angle than many recent films set in the war-torn Middle East. Even though Neither Heaven Nor Earth features a slow-burn pace and more quiet moments than the average movie (war or otherwise), it’s hard not for Cogitore, Renier and company to make some impact on viewers with this film, thanks to the questions it poses and the skill with which they craft its story.
Moviegoers hoping for a more traditional cinematic take on war may be turned off by just how quiet and contemplative Neither Heaven Nor Earth is, but those prepared for a more philosophical take will walk away satisfied.