Stop-Loss (United States, 2008)
Despite dismal box office results across-the-board, the major movie studios have yet to figure out that the American public is not interested in preachy movies about the war in Iraq. Filmmakers interested in producing compelling dramatic films about the Iraq conflict should look to the Vietnam war oeuvre, which contains many superior motion pictures. Unfortunately, what we have been immersed in thus far with the Iraq-based war stories tends to be simplistic and uninteresting. The underlying premise goes something like this: War is hell, the U.S. government is deceitful, and soldiers are being irrevocably damaged. Whether I or any other viewer agrees with this is not the point. It's the job of the filmmakers to present these themes in an intelligent, dramatically potent manner. With Stop-Loss, Kimberly Peirce is no more effective than the others (including Robert Redford, Brian De Palma, Gavin Hood, and Paul Haggis, among others) who have preceded her down this road. In her zeal to wave the flag of protest, she has lost sight of her characters and the reality of their situation. After a strong start, Stop-Loss becomes driven by a series of contrivances before falling prey to bad melodrama and even a little cheesiness.
To give the movie its due, it starts out exceptionally strong, with 30 minutes of apolitical material that depicts the human toll of the situation in Iraq. We follow a group of soldiers manning a roadblock in Tikrit. There's a palpable sense of unease whenever a car approaches, even if there's nothing sinister about the occupants. Then there's a drive-by shooting and, when the Americans pursue, they are led into an ambush. The chaos of the confrontation is effectively captured by Peirce's point-of-view approach, but the editing isn't so fast or random that we lose the sense of what's going on. There's a lot of intensity in this battle scene and it raises expectations for what is to follow - expectations that aren't met.
Several weeks later, childhood friends Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) and Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum) arrive to a hero's welcome in their small Texas hometown. The men he lost in the ambush still weigh on Brandon's conscience, but he presents a brave face to his mother (Linda Emond) and father (Ciaran Hinds). Steve, meanwhile, embraces his fiancé, Michele (Abbie Cornish), and tries to block out the ugliness of the recent past. The revelry is short-lived, however. Against Michele's wishes, Steve decides to re-enlist and attend sniper school. Brandon's discharge is waived; he has been stop-lossed and will be sent back to Iraq. Unwilling to accept this, Brandon goes AWOL and, in Michele's company, embarks upon a road trip to find some way, whether it's an intervention by someone in Washington or a border crossing, to avoid another tour of duty.
As road trips go, this one is ill-conceived. There's not much point to it except to keep Brandon and Michele together for a few days, and the movie fails to go anywhere with their relationship. (Any chemistry between the actors is wasted.) It's odd that these characters spend so much time with each other, often in intimate circumstances, yet there's almost no meaningful interaction between them. Abbie Cornish has a fair amount of screen time, yet her character remains a blank slate. Likewise, Ryan Phillippe's Brandon fails to generate much in the way of sympathy; his demons are ones we have seen so often in war movies that they have become clichés. Brandon never comes to life to the point where we embrace the tragedy of his situation on a visceral level. The climax of Stop-Loss, which occurs in a graveyard, offers a degree of macho bonding that's almost laughable. The scene treads dangerously close to self-parody and fails because of it. This is followed by an improbable ending that few in the audience are likely to accept or believe.
For all of its flaws, and they are numerous, Stop-Loss does a few things right. Its Iraq sequences are as good as any committed to film thus far. The return home parade and its immediate aftermath offer a sense of verisimilitude. And there's a touching interlude in the road trip where Brandon visits one of his injured men. The man's courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable physical limitations (he's blind and has lost one arm and one leg) offers a moment's inspiration. This character has perhaps one-tenth the screen time of Brandon, yet he's more interesting and better developed.
Stop-Loss bears an uncanny resemblance to last year's Home of the Brave in terms of what works and what does not. Both films present effective snapshots of the experience in Iraq; neither is able to provide something similar on the home front. There's no doubt that when a soldier, especially one who has been damaged physically or psychologically, returns from active duty, the battle is not over, but making characters mouthpieces for messages is not an effective storytelling device. There's nothing wrong with a movie having anti-war motivations; the problem is when that's all the movie offers. Stop-Loss fails to give audiences credible characters so its message is forced and its agenda is obvious. Peirce's 1999 feature, Boys Don't Cry, had a harrowing, disturbing quality that got under the skin. Stop-Loss seems to be the work of a different woman. It is likely destined for the scrap pile of Iraq war movies whose well intentioned homilies have been betrayed by their dramatic inertness.
Stop-Loss (United States, 2008)
Cast: Ryan Phillippe, Channing Tatum, Abbie Cornish, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Victor Rasuk, Ciaran Hinds, Linda Emond, Timothy Olyphant
Screenplay: Mark Richard & Katherine Peirce
Cinematography: Chris Menges
Music: John Powell
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures