Neither Heaven Nor Earth

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday August 5, 2016

Jérémie Renier stars in 'Neither Heaven Nor Earth'
Jérémie Renier stars in 'Neither Heaven Nor Earth'  

Clément Cogitore's "Neither Heaven Nor Earth" ("Ni le ciel ni la terre") is a military horror movie that raises hackles only to tease them. Unlike, say, "Dog Soldiers" -- another smart entry into the admittedly all military horror genre -- "Neither Heaven Nor Earth" is more about its central metaphor (the way men disappear into war, never to return) than violent action or gore.

Strange doings haunt a unit of French soldiers stationed in a remote corner of Afghanistan. The men are under the command of a level-headed, no-nonsense captain named Antarès Bonassieu (Jérémie Renier), a tough-minded fellow who honors a personal code of loyalty so strong he has never, nor ever intends to, left behind a brother in arms.

But when two of Capt. Bonassieu's men vanish from their lookout -- overnight, and without a trace -- his devotion to that guiding principle is tested. At first, Capt. Bonassieu blames the soldiers posted to guard duty for failing to keep adequate watch. He also blames the inhabitants of a nearby village, thinking that they have kidnapped his men, possibly in retaliation for his refusal to pay for sheep that wandered into barbed wire near his outpost.

Such thinking, and the aggressive posture Capt. Bonassieu adopts in order to get his men back, is only reasonable given the circumstances, as well as his military mindset. But then things get worse: The disappearances are followed by a third vanishing, that of a man who was talking, only moments before, to a colleague, and who was ensconced in a metal hut from which he could not have exited without his companion seeing him. In the absence of any body, blood, drag marks, footprints, or any other evidence, Capt. Bonassieu locks up the unfortunate soldier who was on the scene and yet saw nothing.

A high-strung young fellow named William (Kévin Azaïs) starts having dreams about the vanished men -- dreams in which he sees them sleeping in a cavern. William is jittery in part because he's anxious to get home to his pregnant wife Sarah, and his nervousness turns out to be justified when he becomes the fourth man to disappear. Sarah, in her turn, is anxious enough that she uses a military telephone line to contact Capt. Bonassieu several days after losing contact with her husband.

With the situation slipping from his grasp, Capt. Bonassieu grows ever more desperate to solve the mystery and track down the whereabouts of his missing men; but the problem only becomes more perplexing when he forges an agreement with a band of Taliban fighters, who have also lost several of their own men.

Clearly, something larger than the region's conflict is going on. Will Capt. Bonassieu's military training prove a match for the inexplicable phenomenon? Or will his men continue to vanish? Could this all relate to an ancient Afghani folk myth? Or is it, perhaps, the beginning of the Christian rapture?

Cogitore's direction is as dry and sparse as the desert terrain (which, incidentally, is photographed lovingly by cinematographer Sylvain Verdet). The score varies from eerily and understated to disconcertingly classical. The result is an increasing tension that builds hand in hand with a maddening sense of strangeness. If the film resorted to handheld shaky-cam (thankfully it doesn't), you might think you were watching a uniformed version of the "The Blair Witch Project" -- that's how unsettling this movie is.

Horror buffs will appreciate this film, but so will anyone fond of dramas or military films.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.