March 31, 2008

REVIEW: Stop-Loss (A-)

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?

I Loved:
+ 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.

I Liked:
+ 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.

I Disliked:
- 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.

I Hated:
- "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.


  1. Amazing review. So good in fact that you ALMOST convinced me to see this. However, although I like many of the cast members and I do believe that Kimberly Peirce is a fine director with a lot of potential, it's really not for me. If it were to be an awards contender, then I would make an effort to see it. But I'll likely pass.

    I found your "Last Words" to be particularly moving and powerful. It's true. North Americans in particular use entertainment as a distraction from all of the horrific things that are currently happening around the globe. It's a kind of insulation.

    But this is the world - and these are the people in it. How do you stop these incidents from escalating or happening in the first place? How DO you effect change? It's extraordinarily complicated and there are no easy answers. But I wouldn't count on the government at any level (municipal, state or federal) to do anything important or lasting.


    Abbie Cornish looks incredibly like Nicole Kidman did about 15 years ago. I saw her in The Golden Age (playing the lady in waiting, Elizabeth Throckmorton, that caught Sir Walter Raleigh/Clive Owen's eye). Don't know where you remember her from.

    Well done, Danny. I'm very proud of you.

  2. You have me convinced. I am so in.

    You see, I do not like Philipe but I am a Channing Tatum fan. If he gives a fraction of the performance he gave in Saints, I might just drop dead. Abbie Cornish was great in Candy. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is underrated.

    Kimberly Peirce has so much more to offer, I mean I am going on my love for "Boy's Don't Cry," but I loved that film and I will support her in any way.

    Great review Danny, I cannot wait to see this, I Can Not wait. So I won't.

  3. *blushes*

    Thanks to both of you for your kind words. I have to admit I was not even planning on seeing this until it arrived. Forgive me for doubting MTV Films could produce anything meaningful. So that being said, my reaction to Stop-Loss may be inflated because of my low expectations going in.

    It won't be an awards contender, Miranda - nor should it be, really, but if you happen upon it you won't have completely wasted your time. Regarding our distractions: it would be nice if it were only North Americans, but I think it's a universal human trait to avoid thinking about things that make us uncomfortable or confused. I certainly believe film has a lot of potential to affect change and influence lives (think about how much we "know" from the movies), though I'm not naive enough to think that a movie is a cure-all for the world's problems. Anyway, this is kind of the underlying heartbeat of my blog, but I'll leave more comments for another time.

    Still don't know about Abbie Cornish - I didn't see Elizabeth or Candy, but there's something so familiar about her. She'll probably do some good work in the future.

    Nick, I first saw (and forgot) Channing Tatum in Coach Carter, but Saints is really where both he and Shia LaBeouf earned my fandom. Tatum doesn't seem to have much of a range beyond tough guy/loyal friend/tortured soul yet, but he has an undeniable screen presence. I'll look forward to your unique insights when it goes trans-Atlantic.

  4. I can't say this movie affected me as deeply as it did you. I thought Phillipe and Rasuk were very good, but most of the other characters' stories seemed underdevloped and perfunctory to me. I admired "Stop Loss," but it didn't really get to me.

  5. I wish I liked it as much as you Daniel, but this is a good review and it gets me to think about the many positive things about the movie beyond some of the negatives.

    As I said elsewhere, I don't think I'm quite the target audience for it, and that's ok.

    One of the interesting things about it is that it remained fairly apolitical. It avoided finger pointing and simply sought to illustrate a bad situation in a way that was pretty powerful at times.

  6. Fortunately there's plenty of room here at Getafilm for differing views, and I'll shut it down if and when there aren't any.

    You won't find me apologizing for the character development or writing, Pat, and you bring up a good point. Certainly Phillippe's and Rasuk's characters were flushed out the best (and we got to know each of their families), but all of the characters suffered from some lazy stereotyping. I don't know how many times we've seen the ol' country boys shooting stuff from the beds of their pick-ups. However, I think I was somehow able to step back and meld all the characters into one: the proud yet reluctant soldier. If the only thing you got from the movie was a new appreciation of Victor Rasuk, that's fine with me.

    Thanks, Craig. It's definitely not a strong enough movie to defend very far, but I was so disappointed by last year's offerings that this was like a breath of fresh air. I wouldn't consider myself in the MTV target audience, either, but it certainly has that indescribable MTV feel to it, and that's enough to turn anyone off. You're right that it avoided cheap jabs at Bush (the closest was the text that I mention), and that attempt at impartiality is one of its strongest aspects.

    Anyway, there's one other observation I forgot to note earlier: with a shaved head, Joseph Gordon-Levitt looks so much like Heath Ledger that I found myself squinting and blinking more than once. It's just incredible, and I never noticed it until this movie.

  7. The first time they showed JGL in a video clip, I thought it WAS Heath Ledger. Bizarre.

    I think it's great that you're giving SL the benefit of a doubt. I've read more than a few reviews that aren't willing to go half way with it.

    Some movies are irredeemable. There's no good in them. Some movies are prefect. Most movies fall somewhere in between to varying degrees and it's up to the viewer to decide whether to focus on the good or the bad.

    It's awfully tempting to focus on the bad because it can make for a very readable review, but I think it's more interesting to try and see the good if there is any, and there definitely is in Stop-Loss.

  8. Yeah, I'm pretty far out on the critical continuum here, but I've found respectable company as the dust is settling. Not that I'd have a problem defending it alone, but it's always nice to have others who can make your point more eloquently. SL is definitely a middle-of-the-roader; I wouldn't expect people to either hate it or love it.

    "It's awfully tempting to focus on the bad because it can make for a very readable review"

    Hehe, isn't that the fun part of writing? In general, it's a lot easier to ridicule than to praise, too.

  9. Maybe that is why I would be an awful critic, I know it generally is known that it is easier to focus on the bad than to praise, but I find it to be the other way around. I find the good in almost everything, but I am fine with that.

    I do think I am the target audience, sorta, for Stop-Loss, and I am curious to see how I will react to it.

  10. Part of the reason your reviews are so impressive to me, Nick, is because they're so positive, but not exaggeratingly so. Sometimes I feel guilty reading them, haha. But seriously, a critic that occasionally redefines the word "critic" is pretty refreshing. There are enough of us already kicking dead movies.

  11. Don't ever lose that attitude Nick. Life is too short to focus on the negative all the time.

    Sometimes a negative review is a lot of fun to write, but I don't want to get trapped in that snarky alt-weekly attitude where everything sucks.

    Sure, I'll try and dismantle a movie I hated, but I won't go out of my way to find those movies until the day comes I'm paid to see everything.

  12. Craig, we love you even when you're snarky. That's one of your most endearing qualities. Never forget that.

    Nicky, you're going to be an awesome critic if you choose to be one at some point. The voice of a generation and all that...

    Special thanks to Danny G. for letting me practice my charm school technique this sunny April morn...

  13. Haha, "alt-weekly attitude." So true.

    Charm away anytime, Miranda.

  14. You don't remember Abbie Cornish from her stellar turn in "A Good Year" with Russel Crowe? I'm still not sure about Channing Tatum, was he really ok?

  15. Thanks for the visit, CarOlyn! Hehe, I'm pretty sure we're the only people I know who saw that. Because I know I would get a big "Ugh!" from you, I won't specifically point out where I mentioned her in A Good Year...

    And you can be sure about Tatum - nobody plays a mentally unstable lunk like him. I described his range a couple comments ago. He's not going to do much more than jocks and soldiers (and whatever he is in Step Up 1 or 2, neither of which I've seen) for a while, but I find him engaging nonetheless.

  16. Wow, what a movie. It was worth the $8.00 just to see the ending. Also worth the money to see Victor Rasuk who I'd never seen before play Rico Rodriguez. I was afraid to see this movie because my son is currently in Iraq. It was a hot day and I didn't really want to make the long drive, but it was sure worth it! By the way, all you young girls, these guys were HOT! Worth the price of admission all by itself!

  17. Thanks for the visit. Glad to see a new fan of Victor Rasuk. Check out Raising Victor Vargas if you want to see a real flirt.

    Thanks to your son for his service - best wishes for a quick and safe tour.

  18. Continuing to let this blog's author know that I'm still a movie fan, I finally caught this one. Eh is all I can muster. Great intentions ruined by a hacky, "this is an important scene" script. And can't Witherspoon just use her power to make Phillipe go away ?

  19. You are one of this blog's authors...

    Those criticisms aside, I don't think you can convince me there's been a better Iraq war movie to date. Also, this one will resonate a lot longer than the others that exist in their own time (Elah, Kingdom, Lions for Lambs, some docs) because these vets are going to be increasing in number for years.

    Aren't Witherspoon and Phillippe done? Turns out he's actually dating Abbie Cornish, his co-star in this movie. Don't ask me how I know that. I was accidentally browsing at an airport gate...

  20. Saw Stop Loss on dvd last night and thought I'd check in on your take on the film. Spot on. A better film than this year's Oscar winner, Hurt Locker, in my opinion.

  21. Thanks for dusting this one off, J. Despite its flaws I think I'd still argue that it's the best Iraq War film to date, ironically because it doesn't take place in Iraq. Neither does the war for the rest of us living our lives here, and for the hundreds of thousands of veterans struggling around us - a full 20% of whom are suffering from PTSD.

    The Hurt Locker did well enough in showing us how people get PTSD, but Stop-Loss and The Messenger showed us, more importantly in my opinion, what it does when soldiers arrive back home.


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