Monday, March 31, 2008


Watching Stop Loss, the new film from writer-director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry) was a frustrating experience for several reasons. Both the talent and the story that are provided here had the potential for a much better movie, and yet the movie falls just short of being recommendable, which is almost as bad as if the movie were simply terrible, with no redeeming qualities. The movie tells the story of a group of soldiers coming home from Iraq and returning to their hometown in Texas where they are met with a warm welcome that serves as a calm before the storm—problems loom on the horizon for all of these young men in combat. Steve (played by Channing Tatum) gets home and seems determined to return to Iraq, obsessed with combat and even digging foxholes in his front lawn in the middle of the night, much to the horror of his fiancée Michelle (a magnificent Abbie Cornish). Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) can't seem to get his shit together, drinking and causing trouble, which leads to his wife throwing him out of the house. And finally, Brandon (Ryan Phillippe) has just been called back (stop-lossed is the name of the government order) for another tour of duty in Iraq, much to his dismay. This final story line, as you may be able to tell from the trailers, is the driving current for much of the narrative.

Let me stop for a moment and say that I am against the Iraq War, but I don't like to say it—or rather, I don't feel like anyone should have to say it. After everything that's happened over the last five years, anyone who thinks that the Iraq War was not a colossal mistake is either in denial, misinformed or blind (or you're the President, who is some combination of all of these characteristics). But the politics behind a movie like Stop Loss won't make it great. The writing and the pacing often seem heavy, with the characters bluntly driving home points about the war that I would hope most people would otherwise gather. This film came from a very personal place (director Kimberly Peirce's brother is in the military and was stop-lossed), but I know that Peirce was capable of making a more nuanced film that shows the politics without resorting to characters who are themselves political mouthpieces. I know this because I've seen Boys Don't Cry, which tackles the subject of homophobia and gay-bashing, yet manages not to be nearly as preachy.

The movie seems torn between telling the story of these soldiers and being a star-vehicle for Ryan Phillippe, who was been getting some press about his performance. He's good—very good, even. Does the film devote too much time to Brandon's story? It's difficult to say. His story is a compelling one. But the result was a great, yet underused ensemble, featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Victor Rasuk (please, Hollywood. Give these two roles worthy of them). What's worse is that Channing Tatum inexplicably clocks more screentime than both of them. Not to say that Tatum is a bad actor (I remain undecided), but he could have been served with a little direction. The most impressive and surprising performance here comes from Abbie Cornish--her silence, her expression, her ability to communicate a lot with very little. If Cornish were more famous and if the film itself was better, she might have had a chance at an Oscar nomination come next year. I doubt voters will think enough to look back at Stop Loss a year from now, but who knows? I also never thought they'd be discerning enough to even nominate (let alone award) a performance as smart, quiet and subtle as Tilda Swinton's in Michael Clayton. Hopefully this will lead to more challenging work down the road for Cornish.

Ultimately, this film bites off more than it can chew, trying to cover too many subjects just as important and weighty as the stop-loss storyline, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, the military industrial complex, etc. Even the film's conclusion feels underdeveloped, even if it is inevitable. But there is a lot of good here. Good, not great. But more than anything, we need film's about the Iraq War to be unflinching, honest, even and, yes, great. There are always the ignorant who will somehow equate lack of success for these films with a hair-brained notion that the Iraq war is somehow a good thing. A frightening thought indeed.

Grade: B

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