Stop-Loss (2008)

DVD Cover (Paramount)
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Overall Rating 64%
Overall Rating
Ranked #3,084
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Decorated Iraq war hero Sgt. Brandon King makes a celebrated return to his small Texas hometown following his tour of duty. He tries to resume the life he left behind. Then, against Brandon's will, the Army orders him back to duty in Iraq, which upends his world. The conflict tests everything he believes in: the bond of family, the loyalty of friendship, the limits of love and the value of honor. --IMDb
Review by bluemeanie
Added: March 31, 2008
Quite a lot has happened since director Kimberly Peirce directed her last film. For starters, September 11, 2001. We've also seen waves and changes in the independent film scene, as well as a league of female directors fall to the wayside. The last time Peirce gave us something cinematic was in 1999 with her breakthrough picture, "Boys Don't Cry", which won a Best Actress Academy Award for Hilary Swank. Nine years later she returns with "Stop-Loss", the first real anti-war film of the new year, and a film that is much better than stinkers like "Rendition" and "Lions for Lambs" that we were force-fed in 2007. But, to call "Stop-Loss" an anti-war film might be disingenuous. I don't think the film sets out to criticize the war as much as it sets out to criticize a certain policy that is justified by the war. But, the film also lacks most of what made "Boys Don't Cry" so strong and engaging - the indie cred that Peirce won with her first film is probably non-existent after her more mainstream move here, though she cannot be faulted for wanting more. "Stop-Loss" was an interesting picture featuring some strong performances, and I am recommending it, but there are some problems with the film that keep me from praising it as highly as I might have.

The film opens in Iraq, with a group of American soldiers documenting what they see and do on their video camera for all the internet to see. We meet Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) and Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), two Texas boys who are about to be discharged. We also meet their friend Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and a few other soldiers. When they are ambushed, a few of the men are killed and most are left scarred by the experience. Soon after, the boys return to Texas, where they are greeted as heroes by their small town. But, as mentioned before, they have been scarred by their experiences. Steve digs a foxhole in his front yard and sleeps there with his gun. Brandon sees imaginary bodies in bizarre places. And, Tommy hits the bottle and shows no signs of letting up. Brandon's life is turned upside down when he discovers that he has fallen victim to 'stop-lossing', in which soldiers are brought back for additional tours of duty, even after their contracts with the military have expired. Brandon does not want to go back and goes AWOL, which takes the film down a different road altogether, with Brandon on the run from the authorities and Steve's fiancÚ, Michelle (Abbie Cornish) along for the ride. The film deals with the 'stop-loss' policy and how it has ruined many lives and caused the deaths of many soldiers.

Let's talk about what works. For starters, Peirce's storytelling abilities are still rather strong and she paints an interesting picture of the lives of these soldiers. She uses photo montages occasionally which actually don't seem out of place. If she does one thing wrong with her storytelling, it's that she paints Texas as far too stereotypical. I understand a person having pride in their home state, but some of the dialog here, in reference to that, is just too much. I thought the opening sequences in Iraq were well done and she manages to keep the tension high - and what we see is just as shocking as she wants it to be; however, once Brandon goes AWOL, the story becomes less interesting and the characters start behaving in bizarre ways. I thought the idea that all soldiers are so scarred from their experiences in Iraq that they come back a little 'off' was a bit much. It's all right to say that some of them do, but we're led to believe that war turns all soldiers into pseudo-crazies. And, the ending of the film is really unsatisfying. All of this work that the lead character puts into the last half of the film seems to have been thrown away for nothing. I know that's probably how it would end in reality, but I just felt a little cheated and let down by the film, not the policy itself.

In terms of the performances, I am going to start with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, because he is one of the finest young actors working today. Here, he continues his streak. "Stop-Loss" is one of the most mainstream films he has made and he shows that he can carry a larger budgeted picture just as well as he can an independent film. Channing Tatum also delivers a thoroughly convincing performance in the film, though he does get a little too emotional at times, with that emotion coming off as a little too 'stage ready'. Timothy Olyphant and Ciaran Hinds have nice and unexpected supporting turns, and so does Laurie Metcalf as the mother of a fallen soldier. Now, to Ryan Phillippe. I have never been a huge fan of his, and I can't say that "Stop-Loss" changed my mind. He is really acting here, with that over-the-top Texas accent. It almost felt like he was playing a caricature of himself, at times. He had moments that worked really well, as when he's confronting Olyphant's character after finding out he's been stop-lossed. But, a lot of the more dramatic scenes don't work because Phillippe doesn't seem equipped enough to handle them. I think an actor with a broader range might have made me feel for the character more, instead of the supporting characters.

All of that said, I am recommending "Stop-Loss" because it is one of the better films to deal with the war I have seen, probably because it's more about an individual policy than the war as a whole. Director Kimberly Peirce probably won't do much for career with this picture, but I am assuming this was more a personal project than anything else. "Stop-Loss" is being marketed to the MTV crowd, probably because it was co-produced by MTV Films. I think that's a smart move, but I don't know how younger audiences will react to this type of picture. I don't know that the film is strong enough to present challenging questions. It does inform us of the 'stop-loss' policy and how it affects so many American soldiers. I guess - if there was a video dictionary, this would be the video you would find under the term 'stop-loss', just like "Rendition" would be the film you would find under the term 'rendition'. I just wonder when films about the war are going to start making a real impact, rather than focusing on singular aspects. One day, that time will come.

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