Movie Review: Stop Loss
By Shane Jenkins
March 27, 2008
"You've been stop-lossed."
It sounds like the signature dismissal from a particularly obnoxious reality show, designed for t-shirts and talking bobble heads. In reality, though, its meaning for today's soldiers is almost the opposite of The Donald's snappy Apprentice catchphrase - not only are you not fired, your contract has been involuntarily extended, and you are required to report back to the battlefield, even though you have already served your term. This loophole in military law is the core of Kimberly Peirce's Stop Loss, the long-gestating follow-up to her acclaimed Boys Don't Cry.
In interviews, Peirce has stated that she had difficulty finding a suitable topic for her next film in the nine years since Boys won Hilary Swank her first Oscar. She's definitely found a hot button topic to explore for this movie, though it has the misfortune to arrive at the tail end of a glut of sub-par war movies that have made brief appearances in theaters over the past few months. The main difference between those films and Stop Loss is, frankly, Peirce herself. She has taken what is a fairly conventional premise and made it her own, by bringing the unique voice that she demonstrated in Boys to the proceedings.
The first 15 minutes of Stop Loss are an exciting and terrifying shoot-out between American troops in Iraq and local insurgents. Peirce uses hand-held cameras for this sequence, and, like in the Bourne sequels, they don't seem to anticipate what will happen next. The camera seems as caught off-guard by the scene as the soldiers, as it struggles to keep up and record the action. We have barely had time to meet the soldiers before the gunfire kicks in, so it's a little difficult to parse out who is who at first. But we immediately understand that Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) is the glue holding this group together. He barks out orders and tries to keep a level head as things begin to go wrong in this encounter, and it becomes clear that his men need his voice of reason.
As the survivors return home, greeted by friends, lovers, and an old-fashioned Welcome Home parade, it is apparent that the soldiers' reliance on Brandon extends beyond the battlefield. This is the meat of Stop Loss's story - the obligations King feels towards his men and country, and his need to do what is best for himself. His main two friends are both severely emotionally damaged - Steve (Channing Tatum), who digs a hole in his yard to sleep in and hits his girlfriend, and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), sunken-eyed and darkly introspective, who seems incapable of living without some sort of violence around him. Even Brandon, ever struggling to be the reliable one, hears gunfire on the edge of his dreams and sometimes has trouble staying in the moment. These are men who undeniably need to come home and get treatment. Brandon is rational enough to realize this, so when he receives the news that he and Steve have been stop-lossed, he takes the only course of action he can imagine - driving from Texas to Washington DC to talk to a senator he met at his homecoming parade.
This is where a director with a heavier touch would run into trouble. Brandon, who is now AWOL, takes a trip up north with Steve's girlfriend, avoiding the police while his friends melt down back home. It would be very easy for all this to veer into melodrama, but Peirce is a smart filmmaker who realizes that sometimes less is more. She gets a terrific performance out of Gordon-Levitt, who has quietly become perhaps the best actor of his peers. His Tommy manages to be heartbreaking and frightening at the same time, and we can see that he is aware that he is losing control over his life and emotions, but is helpless to stop it.
Ryan Phillippe is an actor who spent most of his early career being miscast as vacuous pretty boys in mostly forgettable movies. But with last year's Breach and now this film, he has shown a new-found ability to hold his own with powerful co-stars. His characterization of a man desperately trying to hold it together for the sake of his friends and family anchors the movie in place. There is a scene where he confronts some petty criminals who have broken his car window, and his shocking behavior fills us with dread, because we, like his men, have come to rely on Brandon to be the level-headed one, the one who will make everything okay, and with that gone, it seems like almost anything can happen.
There will be those who call Stop Loss anti-military or anti-American. But maybe the most surprising element of the film to me is that it is not even very interested in the war in a political sense. I was expecting to be preached to Lions for Lambs-style, but Peirce is almost wholly focused on these men and the people around them. They are called "heroes" in the movie and Peirce seems to agree with this; she just wants her heroes to get the help and rest they are entitled to.
Stop Loss will not be the most fun you have at the movies this weekend, and if you buy a ticket hoping for the romantic drama the ads and posters are trying to sell, you will be severely disappointed. But this is a film with some important things to say, and most of it feels truthful, rather than just some standard election-year rhetoric. You will leave wanting to talk about it, instead of just vacantly nodding along to sentiments you already share, and that alone is enough to make Stop Loss a film that deserves to be seen.