Background: Nine years ago, Kimberly Peirce won a trophy case full of "Outstanding Directorial Debut" awards for Boys Don't Cry. Then she disappeared. When her younger brother enlisted in the Army after 9/11 and served in Iraq, she began developing a screenplay about soldiers going AWOL which eventually became Stop-Loss, named after the involuntary service extension policy created by Congress after the Vietnam War. Distributed by MTV Films (who most recently brought us How She Move), Stop-Loss was taken on a tour of college campuses and heavily marketed to teens, despite its justified R-rating. Many of the actors are familiar faces to those under 30: Ryan Phillippe (Breach), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Lookout), Channing Tatum (A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints), Rob Brown (Finding Forrester), and Timothy Olyphant (Live Free or Die Hard), to name just a few. You'll also recognize Ciaran Hinds (There Will Be Blood) in already his third film of 2008, and you may know Alex Frost from Gus Van Sant's disturbing Elephant.
Synopsis: We meet a group of U.S. soldiers in Tikrit as they are routinely manning a checkpoint. A shootout leads to a chase that leads to an ambush, and the troops, led by Sgt. Brandon King (Phillippe), suffer several casualties. Tommy Burgess (Gordon-Levitt) loses his best friend, Steve Shriver (Tatum) gets trapped in a building, and Rico Rodriguez (Victor Rasuk) loses two limbs and his sight. Shaken, the unit arrives back home in Texas to celebrate, commemorate, and commiserate, but it only takes one night for us to know they aren't the same young men who left. Alcohol is the preferred method of therapy, but violence and shooting stuff in the woods suffice in between hangovers. King has finished his tours and thinks he's home to stay, but when the unit reports to base on Monday he learns he's been stop-lossed and is scheduled to go back to Iraq within a matter of weeks. Enraged, he takes off for D.C. with Shriver's girlfriend, Michelle (Abbie Cornish), where he hopes to cash in on a favor from a smiley senator. Along the way he struggles with his status as a fugitive and the terrors that haunt his mind. His buddies back home aren't faring much better - Tommy especially is having a difficult time handling his friend's death. When King realizes the senator can't help a fugitive, he's thrown for a loop. He visits Rico in the hospital and buys a Canadian passport just in case he decides to flee, but his guilt is weighing too heavily on him, and a visit from Shriver combined with an incident back home convinces King that his options are limited. He can't handle another tour, but is he willing to live in paranoia and guilt for the rest of his life?
+ When King visited Rico at the army hospital - one of the most important scenes in the movie.
+ Victor Rasuk as Rico Rodriguez. Raising Victor Vargas is one of my favorite movies of the decade, and I can't get enough of this guy. He was also great as Tony Alva in Lords of Dogtown, and I hope he gets some better roles in the future.
+ Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Channing Tatum, again. Gordon-Levitt has successfully erased the developing ("3rd Rock from the Sun") years of his career with solid roles in Brick, The Lookout, and this, and Tatum is 2/2 by my count after Saints. They'll both be in next year's G.I. Joe.
+ The first 10 minutes - that combat looked more believable to me than any other dramatizations that have come out of Iraq. No stupid jokes, no dog running across the alley to break the tension, and no easy heroics. Just pure, unflinching horror that set the tone for us to understand the characters the rest of the way.
+ Abbie Cornish as Michelle. As really the only female presence in the movie, she successfully and simultaneously added the important representation of the Army wife, girlfriend, sister, and fiancee. As an Australian, her Texan accent was pretty good, too. I'm positive I recognize her from something, but her only other credit that I've seen is A Good Year, and I don't think it's from that. I'm stumped.
- The funeral scene - it was poorly written and too long.
- Rob Brown, who was discovered at an open casting call for Finding Forrester and hasn't done much since. Either he's in the wrong line of business or he's just unable to find solid roles.
- The epilogue text about Bush and stop-loss statistics. It wasn't underhanded or inappropriate, but it wasn't necessary, either. Anybody who's not troubled by what they've seen in the last two hours won't be convinced by some numbers, and anybody who wasn't already aware of stop-loss is probably too far out of it to understand anyway.
- "LET THE BODIES HIT THE FLOOR!" This song by Drowning Pool has now made its second appearance on screen in the last two months. Who writes something like this? Would you want to go to that concert? I must be the only one disturbed that this is becoming the unofficial theme song for U.S. troops and that Drowning Pool has been the most popular U.S.O. touring act for the last few years. Yes, it's catchy and I "get it," but...well, maybe I don't. "Killing music" isn't really my preferred genre.
Writing - 8
Acting - 9
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 10
Music - 5
Significance - 5
Total: 46/50= 92% = A-
Last Word: At the five year mark of the war a couple of weeks ago, I lamented that Hollywood has poured out over 100 movies about Iraq and somehow still added little to the discussion. Consider Stop-Loss the counterargument. Sharply directed and superbly acted, it's the first important movie about the war in Iraq, and the only one I can recommend that isn't a documentary. It isn't perfect, and it's not The Deer Hunter or Coming Home, but it's a lot better than you would think an MTV-produced movie made for teenagers would be. Kimberly Peirce has absolutely nailed her sophomore effort and proven to those unconvinced that a woman can translate the horrors of war as well as a Clint Eastwood or Oliver Stone (and I'm hopeful that she'll help forge a path for female directors behind her). There are a few melodramatic moments and the writing isn't airtight, but the film packs an emotional punch because the characters are people that we know exist all around us, and will for the rest of our lives. Stop-Loss forces us to accept this reality as much as we don't want to. We can go back to our TVs and movie blogs and other distractions, but are we going to be ready when the real effects of the war start here? When hundreds of thousands of veterans are going through the same unexaggerated struggles as these characters? That question has been on my mind for about five years now, but Stop-Loss is the first mainstream movie (The War Tapes from '06 is a similar doc) that may wake up the public and start a dialogue about the future. Hopefully we can at least agree on the importance of that discussion in this polarized and partisan culture, and Kimberly Peirce has successfully attempted to initiate one.