REVIEW: Stop-Loss [2008]

“Read the cards Shorty”

This review contains spoilers

Kimberly Peirce’s Stop-Loss is the perfect example of a film that can show whether you like the medium or the stories. I think I can tell myself that I am a true film fanatic after watching this because I thought it was a great piece of work. I’ve come to this conclusion because while I would see it again and recommend it to friends, I cannot condone one iota of it. It is blatantly anti-war, anti-American, and probably the worst thing that can happen in the US right now. Moral in the war and the troops cannot be helped at all with this very message-driven story. Despite all that, though, I really enjoyed my time with these characters despite how vain and selfish they are. The emotions are real and Peirce shows once again how authentic she can make the South look and feel with a nice rendering of Texas. I really hope we see her next piece with less than a nine-year hiatus as happened here since her debut Boys Don’t Cry.

I guess I will get my editorializing out of the way early. People can say that those like our lead Ryan Phillippe are right in disregarding orders when stop-lossed, and I will agree that it is a horrible reality. Unfortunately, though, the main point is the fact that they volunteered to fight and signed a contract stipulating in a time of war they can be held back for another tour. The idea that Bush said the war is over, therefore we aren’t still at war, is the flimsiest piece of bs in the world. I feel for his character that he must go back because he is a good soldier—they keep those they can trust and need to win the fight—but he must follow the orders he swore to listen to when he enlisted. Everything that happens in the film, and I mean everything, occurs due to his selfishness and attempt at a futile mission to change the law. Did he really think he could get a government official to help his cause? Would any Senator risk his job and political stature to harbor the ideals of a fugitive criminal? Come on. Also, with how the story concludes, it was all for naught. Relationships ended, families were torn apart, and friends died all while they were on leave back in America. Phillippe’s character abandoned those that needed him most. His reasoning for not going back to war, that he failed in his job to bring his soldiers home, ended up being his failings once he returned. He left his post for nothing and changed the climate of life in his small Texas town forever. The one flaw with this film is that it is so one-sided in its execution that in order to show him fight for his cause of right, you must also show how his leaving those he cared about left them to die alone with their fears and inability to go back to normal life.

Despite all those personal reservations and the fact that this film could damage people’s outlooks on a war they already don’t agree with, as an entry to the world of cinema, it is very effective. I would compare it to The Deer Hunter in its portrayal of wartime clichés without making them feel forced or stereotypical, (not for being even close to the masterpiece that Vietnam movie is, but I could call this an MTV generation’s version). We have the newly weds rejoining after a tour of duty and the hardships that entails, we have the injured soldier banished to a wheelchair and a life of blindness, the soldier so taken out of reality that being a soldier is all he knows, and the entire group suffering from mild to extreme Gulf War Syndrome on full display. Credit Peirce for showing it all realistically and somewhat sympathetically, never wholly to manipulate the audience, but instead to just tell the story she wanted to tell. Her directing style is effective as well, from the handheld look and feel of the alley ambush at the start, the grainy home-film of the troops letting off steam during downtime, to the dark close-ups following the group around back in America. For those intense scenes of violence she deftly cuts in footage from Iraq with what is happening onscreen. The sequence with Phillippe and the thieves who stole Abbie Cornish’s purse is very memorable. Both from the choreography and brutality as well as the reverting back to his Sergeant self, engaging an enemy that is manifested in his mind. Peirce’s only misstep is with the concealing of an event back in Iraq upon Phillippe saving Channing Tatum. To show this scene towards the end of the movie, a scene so out of the blue because it was never alluded to before, was blatant manipulation. She was doing so well at allowing everything to happen on course, until she spliced that harrowing moment to make us hate the war even more. The whole movie could be seen as manipulating the truth, but that instance was the one that made me angry.

A big part of my enjoyment, though, is in the fantastic acting by a strong troupe of young thespians. Emotions run high throughout, from extreme happiness to the depths of utter pain and sorrow. The two characters we spend the most time with are Phillippe and Cornish. He is really amazing in his portrayal of the leader in the field and off it. His ability to diffuse the situations cropping up with his friends and soldiers is well played. The slow devolution of his façade that everything is all right is also great. He is the one with his head on straight, but when pushed against a wall, the psyche shows its imperfections. Cornish shows some wonderful moments too, most noticeable when dealing with those they encounter. Her interactions with the disabled at the Veteran Medical facility stick out the most. Speaking of that sequence, kudos to Victor Rasuk as Rico. His outlook on the life he must lead from now on was an interesting thing to see. The juxtaposition of his injuries to the smile and disposition talking with his friend is tough to assimilate. War is most definitely hell, and I liked the lingering shot of him as his two visitors leave the room; his realization and snap back to the reality of being in that bed alone with only his memories of a full life that was there for the taking.

My favorites, however, are Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tatum. Gordon-Levitt is an obvious choice as the guy is probably the best young actor working today and I am a big fan of his work. He has made a name for himself playing the troubled young adult dealing with inner demons. There is a lot of his character from Manic here as he attempts to reconcile his feelings of relief and happiness to be home with those of hatred and revenge in wanting to go back to the Middle East to cause havoc. Tatum, on the other hand, was a big surprise. I guess when given a role that doesn’t entail dancing or pretending to be an athlete, the guy can bring some talent to the table. As the one who sees a future for himself in the army, unsure whether to pursue it or to stay with the people he promised five years prior, he shows the conflict and inability to be the person he wants to be and the one they want at the same time. All his feelings towards Phillippe for his abandonment are true and I feel the only thing that is at all times real. This character is what kept me from completely writing the film off as anti-war propaganda. He knew his job and saw what fighting the law could do to those close to him. He must watch the world implode while his best friend leaves him to clean up his mess. It’s a turn that I wasn’t quite sure he had in him and maybe will make me buy into some of his hype.

Stop-Loss 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

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