Directed by: Kimberly Peirce
Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Channing Tatum, Abbie Cornish, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Timothy Olyphant
The aisles of multiplexes have of late been littered with box-office duds focusing on the Iraq war. Take last year’s Lions for Lambs, Rendition, In the Valley of Elah and Brian De Palma’s Redacted, which never even came to town. Kimberly Peirce’s Stop-Loss tries to buck that trend by aiming squarely for an MTV audience (the cable channel even produced the film), while never taking a completely firm stance on the war itself. Judging by the movie’s eighth-place finish in this past weekend’s box office, it doesn’t seem much has changed.
The term “stop-loss” refers to the military’s practice of forcing soldiers back to war after their tour of duty has ended, and Peirce uses this as a framework to examine how the war affects the soldiers themselves, eschewing any greater political message. The film follows Brandon (Ryan Phillippe), a soldier who has just returned home after finishing what was to be his final tour in Iraq before immediately being stop-lossed. Brandon still holds some guilt for leading his men into an ambush where some were killed or disfigured and civilians died. Instead of returning to Iraq, he somehow—off camera, mind you—sneaks off a military base and goes AWOL. The film then turns into a sort of implausible road-trip movie, in which Brandon leaves his native Texas in an attempt to make it to Washington, D.C., to speak with his local senator (Josef Sommer, The Invasion).
All of this is meant to study the soldiers, not just their reactions to being in combat, but also their sense of duty and honor. The movie is less about the war and more a criticism on the practices of the military. Peirce is obviously making a movie about the troops, while attempting to avoid stating whether or not she’s for or against the war. Sure, there are a number of criticisms leveled against the administration, along with the requisite “horrors of war” (every character suffers from some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder). But this is all negated in the film’s final scene and by the jingoistic mentality of many of the film’s characters—such as the “bomb them back into the Stone Age” attitude of Brandon’s best friend and fellow soldier, Steve (Channing Tatum, Step Up).
The idea of making a thoughtful film where both sides of the war are shown, while ultimately leaving the movie’s message up to the viewer, is perfectly fine in theory. But in the case of Stop-Loss, it doesn’t work in practice. The film’s basic structure is problematic. It never seems to know where it wants to go, literally meandering about the country as Brandon and Steve’s girlfriend, Michelle (Abbie Cornish, Elizabeth: The Golden Age), drive from Texas to Tennessee, halfway back to Texas, up to New York City and then back to Texas, all in what appears to be the span of a few days. Then there are the contrivances the film is built around, like a scuffle between Brandon and some thugs that’s simply there to once again remind the audience that Brandon hasn’t been quite right since after the war. Or take Brandon’s chance encounter with a fellow soldier who just happens to be AWOL in the exact same hotel in the middle of nowhere.
Despite all of this, the film might have worked if there had been a cast member who could have carried the film, but the performances range from the middling to the borderline embarrassing, complete with fake Texas accents (the kind that make James Van Der Beek’s in Varsity Blues (1999) sound authentic) serving as nothing more than a distraction. Anyone waiting for a movie to kick the moviegoing public out of their malaise surrounding the war is going to have to wait a little bit longer. Stop-Loss doesn’t appear to be it. Rated R for graphic violence and pervasive language.