Movie Review: Stop Loss
By Matthew Huntley
April 3, 2008
Stop-Loss has so many disconnected scenes, it's like they were each taken from a different screenplay. Here is a movie that lacks a fundamental relationship among all of its parts, which unfortunately causes us to lose interest as we stare at the lackluster situations taking place on-screen. All this comes as a surprise since the director is Kimberly Peirce, who last made the indelible Boys Don't Cry in 1999. Maybe she's been out of practice too long.
This is yet another movie about the current ramifications of the conflict in Iraq (I hesitate to write "war" since Congress has not officially declared war, which ties in with the film's main conflict). Content and theme-wise, Stop-Loss has a lot in common with Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah, about a father's implacable determination to find out the truth about his son's murder. Like that film, it deals with the potential trauma and bewilderment young men and women might face upon returning from Iraq, especially since it's never been made clear what they're fighting for.
At the beginning, a band of close-knit soldiers chase after a group of insurgents in a war-torn Iraq. They have orders to pursue anyone who attacks them, and in an intensely staged battle sequence, some are killed and others are wounded. The group's leader, Sergeant Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), inadvertently kills an innocent woman and her children. The entire incident leaves Brandon and his men distressed and traumatized.
Brandon and his fellow soldiers - Steve (Channing Tatum), Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Isaac (Rob Brown) - return home to their small Texas town. They're welcomed home with a parade and a party, but the only thing really worth celebrating is their being alive. Steve has a fiancée named Michelle (Abbie Cornish) but contemplates re-enlisting in the army as a sniper. Tommy also has a wife but begins a period of self-destruction with alcohol.
Brandon believes his tour of duty is complete until he learns about "stop-loss," an order in which the military can involuntarily extend the contract of its servicemen. His commanding officer (Timothy Olyphant) tells Brandon he'll be returning to Iraq. Feeling cheated and angry, Brandon goes AWOL and believes he can drive up to Washington, D.C. to speak with a senator (Josef Sommer) who can change the orders. His other option would be to meet with a lawyer in New York City and establish a new identity.
Peirce and co-writer Mark Richard have relevant issues to work with here. In hindsight, I appreciate the comment they were trying to make on the illegalities of stop-loss and agree with their suggestion that Iraq has become the 21st century's Vietnam, especially in the way soldiers return home to a life that no longer seems to fit them. We see each of the soldiers suffer from post traumatic stress in his own way - Tommy goes on severe drinking binges; Steve hits Michelle and starts digging trenches in his front lawn; Brandon beats up a gang of thugs and shoots them like they were insurgents (in one of the movie's most effective scenes).
I understand what the filmmakers wanted to get at, yes, but where they actually go is another thing. Most of the time, the movie seems amateurish and directionless. It actually grows boring because the narrative wanders around too much. Scenes plod along and the filmmakers don't seem to know how to edit their footage together. Random scenes in which Brandon visits the family of his fallen soldiers are surprisingly flat and distract us from the central story.
The acting isn't very strong, either. Ryan Phillippe is reliable and adequate, as is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but Channing Tatum needs to work on making his gestures less obvious. He overkills his performance and there were times it seemed he was simply rehearsing his lines in front of a mirror and that's what Peirce used in the final cut. I also didn't find anything particularly fetching about Abbie Cornish, who doesn't fuel Michelle with enough authentic conviction. She speaks in a low, monotonous tone, and I found little interest in what she was saying. There's a scene between Steve and Michelle where something dramatic happens but neither seems to react to it the way two people really would.
And I'm not too sold on the ending. Would Brandon and Steve really just end up where they do, no questions asked? Is that really what the army allows?
I believe a compelling film still needs to be made about stop-lossing. It could show how a soldier's heart and mind sink knowing their country has violated its own contract with the people who serve it. Such a movie would probably work best as non-fiction, evidenced by the slew of hard-hitting documentaries that have indicted the United States for its involvement in Iraq. As fiction, Stop-Loss tries to be dramatic and heartfelt, but ultimately fails to deal with its subjects effectively or entertainingly.