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The war in Iraq has inspired numerous films over the past year or two. None have been able to match the sort of power of the Vietnam films they can’t help but be compared to. Nothing has matched Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket or Cimino’s Deer Hunter or Ashby’s Coming Home or Scorsese’s Taxi Driver or Stone’s Platoon. There is no Casualties of War, though De Palma came close to matching his own picture with his very similar Redacted. So, what gives? Why has it been so difficult for contemporary filmmakers to match the power of their predecessors? The fact is, the directors of our time with powers to match those of Hollywood’s last Golden Age are not making pictures about the war. The best film to be made about the war in Iraq – David O. Russell’s Three Kings – isn’t even about the present war in Iraq. Kimberly Peirce’s Stop-Loss is an honorable effort, racked with problems both formal and thematic, and is ultimately as confusing and confused as its subject matter.
Stop-Loss introduces the heroes of the story while they are still in Iraq. The audience goes along with the soldiers as they engage in an impromptu firefight in a bomb-and-bullet bruised alley with nameless, motivationless, Iraqi “insurgents”. Peirce captures all of this with the sort of gritty, handheld camerawork Paul Greengrass used so well in his Bourne films (and Ridley Scott used so poorly in Black Hawk Down). It’s cinematic claustrophobia, and it works. The audience is there, so to speak, with the soldiers who fight and get shot and bombed. Some get out alive. Others are carried away, dead. And a few make it out somewhere between life and death, maimed and deformed. For one soldier, Rico Rodriguez (the amazing Victor Rasuk), the maiming is physical. But for another, Ryan Phillippe’s Brandon King, he leaves the battle mentally and emotionally deformed.
The alley shoot out is a bravura passage of cinematic filmmaking, the anxiety and excitement palpable and harrowing. Throughout the early scenes there are moments of the young soldiers goofing off and roughhousing that clearly define their characters and their situations in exciting and interesting ways. And this is precisely why the film disappoints in such a pronounced way over the course of the picture. When the soldiers return home, when the actual movie narrative starts, Peirce’s strengths and weaknesses as a director reveal themselves with little mercy – for either her or her audience.
There is no denying Peirce’s facility with actors. She assembled a fantastic cast for this picture. Ryan Phillipe, who has always walked a fine line between “real” actor and mere marquee face, comes into his own in a miraculous way. I walked out feeling similar to how I felt after seeing Catch Me If You Can, realizing DiCaprio had become that rare thing: a movie star who is also an actor. Channing Tatum as Steve is also an electric presence on screen, and if one can forgive him for his always-wavering Texas accent, he gives the film a brawny and brazen energy that dominates the screen. The scenes these two actors share are powerful and moving, but more often than not, troubling…which brings us to Peirce’s weakness: plotting and storytelling.
The film is so sloppily organized as a narrative that it sabotages itself at every turn. It is a road movie that goes nowhere, a movie about would-be veterans who never quite exit the Army, a film that ends up being about nothing because it is trying to be about too many things. To give Peirce the benefit of the doubt, one might allow that this ambiguity is an intentional choice. However, I don’t think it is. What is more likely is that Peirce really had a hard time defining the film in her head beforehand.
Stop-Loss is essentially a classic melodrama, at least it should be. But Peirce sells that noble genre short by taking our protagonist away from his friends and family (the very relationships most ripe for emotional excavation), and puts him out on the road. When Brandon is informed that even though he is supposed to be out-processing and returning to civilian life, he is, in fact, being sent back to Iraq, he loses his shit. Brandon gets this cockamamie idea that he’s going to drive to Washington D.C. to seek the help of a politician who recently shook his hand at a homecoming parade. He goes AWOL, and so does much of the picture’s logic.
Not only is it distracting – I would even argue offensive – for Peirce to suggest that anyone is so dim as to not see the ridiculousness of driving to D.C. from Texas to ask a politician for a favor, but what’s worse is that it is wholly unnecessary. Coupled with this illogical turn is the insertion of a totally unnecessary female character, Michelle (Abbie Cornish). Michelle is Steve’s girlfriend. Yet when Phillippe’s Brandon hits the road to drive to Washington D.C. Michelle goes with him. For no good reason other than to insert a female protagonist into the movie’s main plot. At the risk of sounding sexist, it feels like Peirce simply wanted to have a strong female character at the center of the film, logic and motivation be damned.
Once on the road the movie alternates between touching scenes of real human intimacy and plot-pushing swill that inspire more than a few eye-rolls and head scratches. Peirce gets us out of town in order to show the audience what happened to the other soldiers in Brandon’s squad: the maimed Rico in a VA hospital; the family of the deceased Preacher (Terry Quay). The audience is also given a scene featuring another AWOL soldier on the lam with his family. Which leads to further convoluted developments involving a documents hack that tries to help Brandon escape to Canada. But all this cross-country travel is unnecessary when the real drama exists in the soul of Brandon King. Peirce decides to dramatize his tortured soul through episodic plot contrivances, when the real story would have been better told on Main Street, Somewhere In Texas.
Stop-Loss is ultimately two distinctly different films fighting for attention. One is about a group of soldiers who go home changed, different people. The other is a film about a soldier trying to escape his demons by facing them on the highways of middle America. Each one could have been a good picture. This conjoined war/road picture is exciting when it works and frustrating when it does not.