Shot on digital video and emblazoned with such impressionistic effects as the visions captured by a night-vision camera, Neither Heaven Nor Earth is a contemporary ghost story that’s both unabashedly mystical and thrillingly pulpy. While he may indulge in the occasional programmatic jump scare, writer-director Clément Cogitore ultimately heaves his debut feature closer to the realm of psychological terror, understanding that there’s nothing more frightening or darker than the human mind.
In the film, a group of French soldiers trying to secure the surroundings of an Afghan village as part of a NATO mission find themselves hostages to an unknown terrain and, increasingly, their own fears. The trouble commences almost immediately, when the battalion’s captain, Antarès Bonassieu (Jérémie Renier), faces the fact that his men are disappearing mysteriously from their posts, practically from under his nose. Bonassieu’s response is to blame the Taliban and, by turn, the locals whom he suspects of protecting the Taliban’s secrets. But as Bonassieu gets no answers, and as disappearances mount, he’s faced with the unenviable role of cutting off communication channels with the outside world, and tyrannizing his soldiers to solve the mystery. At one point, he goes as far as to take sleeping pills to help simulate what might be happening to his soldiers during the night.
Part of the film’s suspense lies in Bonassieu’s obstinacy and growing mental frailty, explored by the filmmakers almost to the point of likening the man to Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Here, too, some of the paranoia that seizes the French—a former colonial power—lies in their construction of “the other.” And Bonassieu’s devolution, like Kutz’s, shows that even the most analytical mind, backed by good intentions, is corruptible. In Neither Heaven Nor Earth, this corruption is partly justified by the brutal uncertainty of not knowing the hour of one’s death, but always sensing that it’s near.
But the real twist, and perhaps the ultimate fall, comes when Bonassieu learns that the Taliban has been suspecting him of doing the same: kidnapping their men. Thus begins an uneasy alliance of foes on opposite sides of the frontline, aligned by something even more potent than politics or religion: the immediate threat, and fear, of extermination. Bonassieu’s pact with the enemy pushes him as far as letting the Taliban terrorize the locals, doing some of the dirty work of interrogation and intimidation for him.
Some of Neither Heaven Nor Earth straightforwardly oscillates between scenes of violence and soldiers dancing and working out. In some ways, it’s a classic depiction of war, replete with ambushes, rapid exchanges of fire in vast, dry terrain that’s hostile to humans, followed by stretches of tediousness. In spite of this simplicity, we still strongly sense the psychological ballast of war: Like Bradley Cooper’s Chris Kyle from American Sniper, these French soldiers will clearly carry the war back home with them.
They will also carry the knowledge of a war’s annihilation; in one of the scenes, the soldiers stuff black bags with sheep offal, to simulate the weight of human bodies, so that the families of victims don’t know the extent to which bombs had massacred their loved ones. Other scenes, mainly of Bonassieu wrangling with the local tribal chiefs over village searches and bribes, delve into the procedurals and risks of wars such as the one in Afghanistan, where troops rely on building fragile alliances with local populations, while continuing to be disdainful and fearful of them.
During the film’s combat scenes, the use of rapid camera movements and fish-eye perspective heighten the sense of disorientation and terror. But only in the scenes where a character dons night-vision goggles does Neither Heaven Nor Earth feel more original in its storytelling and stylistic methods. The image’s green shadowy tinge, the uncertain point of view, and the blurriness retain a documentary-like veracity, while also conveying a nightmarish aura that’s heightened by the soundtrack’s eerie electronic sounds. By the time we learn that the land where the French have built their post may be haunted, full of tales of goat sacrifices, of men who go to sleep never to be found, we’re no longer sure where prejudice and local lore end and genuine madness begins.