Friday, March 28, 2008

Stop-Loss (***)

Co-written and Directed by Kimberly Pierce


People have been waiting for a film to fully digest the War on Terror going on in Iraq. Films like In The Valley of Elah tried, but their heavy-handed messages sent more than a few people away. There has yet to be a film to comprehend this war, the way Saving Private Ryan did World War II, or Apocalypse Now did Vietnam. Hell, even the first Gulf War was perfectly dissected in Three Kings. With Stop-Loss, we have a film that's earnest--if to a fault--and brutal in it's portrayal of wartime dehumanization. What I noticed mostly when watching the film though, is that it is nearly impossible to make a coherent war movie, when the war that it's portraying makes close to no sense.

Stop-Loss is the second feature film from Kimberly Pierce, the same filmmaker who also co-wrote and directed the single most iconic film about homosexuality to date, with Boys Don't Cry. After that, though, she's seemingly been a ghost within the film industry. Like Boys Don't Cry, her latest film is pretty grizzly as well as up, close, and personal. This film pulsates with an energy that was absent from most films made about this war, and though it can't quite steer clear of unneeded sentimentality, it's brashness leaves it's mark in your mind.

The film is about Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillipe), a squad leader who comes home a war hero, decorated by the purple star. Coming home with him are his buddies Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). They're happy to be home, but are almost immediately haunted by the images they saw during the war. Steve and Tommy both have troubles with their fiances, when their nightmares turn into blind rage. Brandon, particularly, cannot forget leading his men into an ambush where men were killed and many others were wounded.

But all is well, because Brandon's tour of duty is finished and he can stay home. That is, until he is stop-lost. Stop-loss is a part of his military contract which allows the Army to send him back into the war, even after his tour is over. "It's like a back-door draft," Brandon explains to his parents. Filled with rage, and unwilling to go back to the Middle East, Brandon goes AWOL, and takes off with Steve's fiance Michelle (Abbie Cornish) toward Washington D.C., to get help from a senator who'd previously promised to give Brandon anything he'd ask for. The closer he and Michelle get to D.C. the more they both realize the futility of Brandon's race. Brandon's options quickly begin to shrink in front of him, and so does, unfortunately, the film's steam.

The movie mostly succeeds when focused on the shell-shocked soldiers. Sure, Phillipe, Tatum, and Gordon-Levitt look more like Calvin Klein underwear models than Texas good ol' boys, but it doesn't stop each of them from expressing the pain and anguish of the three disillusioned boys. Pierce, in her two films, has shown that her imagery is generally uncompromising, particularly when showcasing raw emotion. Even during the few good times that the boys have back at home, they all walk around, morose and with a violent burst just waiting to show itself.

Being produced by MTV Films, there are definitely more than a few moments when montages are spurred together like music videos, and the melodrama becomes a bit overwrought. Essentially, these have been the issues with all the films made about the current Iraq war, and consequently, every single one of those films has been universally rejected by the public audiences. This film, though, does take a bold step forward, closely showcasing our violent intrusion into a country we know nothing about.

What keeps the film afloat for the most part is the work of it's star cast. Being a fan of Gordon-Levitt for a long time, his striking--albeit, short--performance as Tommy was more than intriguing. This is my first look at Channing Tatum, a former model, and luckily he doesn't overstep his boundaries as the sharp-shooting Steve, but instead brings a quiet, contained rage to a very complex character. Abbie Cornish's performance as Michelle is good, even if her character is puzzling. Why drive across the country with your fiance's best friend? She's able to sell the idea of it.

More than anyone, though, the work of Ryan Phillipe as Brandon is the most impressive. Phillipe has always seemed to be a member of the Keanu Reeves Wooden Actor Society, but with his startling, yet subdued portrayal of a man who is forced to go against his very own beliefs is more than uncanny. This kind of character is difficult to play, because it is so easy to slip through the cracks and begin to ham it up, but Phillipe's ability to balance between the brewing anger and the restrained leadership is not only inspired, but captivating.

I'm sure many will judge this film based on their own political beliefs, which is unfair, since this film rarely deals with any type of politics (except for one very entertaining "Fuck the president!" rant by Phillipe). That said, as long as were are still overseas, people will only respond to this movie with polarizing viewpoints. All that aside, it's a very entertaining film, even if it does slug through it's second act quite a bit. It's not the masterpiece which will help us understand this war, but it's abrasiveness has shown that non-documentaries can be made to show the horror of what our troops are going through.

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