Movies about the current war in Iraq have all faced an uphill battle with potential ticket buyers. Whether or not people are ready or interested in stories about our soldiers is a valid question at this point. Last fall, every single film dealing with the Iraq war was met with a cold-shoulder at the box office; critics have been mixed overall. And it's sad for me to report that Kimberly Peirce's blistering new film STOP-LOSS (****) died an undeserved death last weekend at the box office as well. When will people care about what's going on around them? What will it take for people to realize that smart, entertaining films that are topical and important are getting made and being released nationwide? STOP-LOSS is probably the best of the recent Hollywood films about our current war, and that it works as both a stylish piece of entertainment and as a scathing critique of military policy is further testament to Peirce's excellent filmmaking and storytelling abilities. Her first film in almost a decade since she burst on the indie scene with the uncompromisingly raw film BOYS DON'T CRY, STOP-LOSS may not be perfect, but it delivers on many levels and reveals itself to be both a compassionate look at our soldiers while deeply condemning the war in Iraq and one of our governments most absurd policies.
STOP-LOSS begins with an intense battle sequence set in Tikrit. A unit of American soldiers led by Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe, never better) chase their enemy into an alley. His squad, made up of two friends from back home and a group of other young soldiers, are ambushed. A few men are killed, some are horribly injured, and all are deeply affected by what they see and what they have to do. This incredibly visceral sequence of action, shot vividly by the phenomenal cinematographer Chris Menges (THE KILLING FIELD, THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA) and expertly cut by editor Claire Simpson (THE CONSTANT GARDENER), is scary and relentless. It's also necessarily bloody and violent; by immediately thrusting the audience into battle without knowing anything about our characters, the viewer is catapulted into this world without warning. Brandon leads his men eventually to safety and we cut to their homecoming in Brazos, Texas where King and soldiers Tommy Burgess (the excellent Joseph-Gordon Levitt) and Steve Shriver (a brooding Channing Tatum) call home.
Peirce and her co-writer Mark Richard effectively set the scene once the men arrive back home. All of them are hard drinkers, and not without their own sets of personal issues which stem from before they left for Iraq, the men all have trouble adjusting to life back in the states. Tommy is an alcoholic who can't control his marriage and Steve is suffering from a serious case of post-traumatic stress syndrome (he's seen digging fox holes in his front yard because that's the only place he can comfortably fall asleep). But Brandon has a bigger problem. Not home more than a few days, he gets the word that he's been "stop-lossed" by the military. Considered an important and valuable soldier by his superiors, he's ordered to go back to Iraq for another tour, despite having served two tours already. It's in his contract but the option isn't executed for every soldier. Brandon, naturally, objects; he doesn't feel it's fair to send him back to fight, especially now that his opinion of the war has drastically changed. Peirce and Richard's narrative stings of authenticity and I'm not surprised; her step-brother signed up to fight for America as a direct result of 9/11. The men in STOP-LOSS come from military families and are all cut from the same patriotic cloth. Fighting for their country is as natural of a decision as brushing their teeth. But Brandon feels that enough is enough. He goes AWOL and hatches a plan to drive to Washington DC to confront a Senator that welcomed him upon his arrival home. Steve's girlfriend Michelle, the Australian actress Abbie Cornish (pretty but bland), has been life-long friends with Brandon and agrees to accompany him on his trip.
STOP-LOSS then takes the form of a road-movie for it's middle section, where we're shown what life is like for an AWOL soldier. Brandon runs into some other AWOL soldiers who tell him of their life on the run from their superiors, and he's told stories of a mysterious guy in Manhattan who for $1000 can arrange for safe passage to Canada; the trick is you're never able to come back to America. That this is a real life scenario facing some of our nation's soldiers is just despicable. The idea of fighting for your country, bravely and successfully, and then being told to go back after you've served your tour(s) is something I just can't wrap my head around. John Kerry famously referred to the "stop-loss" policy as a "back-door draft," which it basically is. Under no circumstances will I spoil any of the major plot developments that occur in this film. What I will say is that while a little chaotic, the narrative trajectory of STOP-LOSS moves in an interesting way, and while some of the proceedings threaten to turn overly melodramatic, they don't.
There were a lot of aspects of STOP-LOSS that surprised me. First, Ryan Phillippe was fantastic in the lead role. After a string of teeny-bopper roles, Phillippe has worked hard to erase the vapid pretty-boy image that first greeted him upon his arrival as a movie star. His last few films, including CRASH, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, and BREACH, have more than demonstrated his dramatic talents. But his performance in STOP-LOSS should be considered a revelation for him as an artist. Sure, he's still buff and good looking, but there is a somber, soulful quality in his performance that is hard to shake. One scene, in which he's attacked by some local drunks outside of a bar, is unflinchingly intense; the battle scars he received in Iraq come back to haunt him. It's a highly physical yet deeply emotional performance that deserved to be recognized in some way. Tatum, who tore it up in the indie A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS, was also excellent in his role of Brandon's best friend and severely traumatized soldier. Late in the film, Brandon and Steve get into a physical confrontation that was startling in it's believability to witness. Tatum has the square-jawed good looks and fiery inner intensity that spells major stardom. And coming off his strong performance in BRICK, Gordon-Levitt strikes the right notes as a deeply troubled young man who simply cannot get his personal life in order.
Peirce and her creative team also spike the film with cut-ins of the soldiers experience. Taking the form of personal videos shot during combat and downtime, these interludes we're shown enrich the story with a sense of the personal and a sense of the dangerous. Sort of like the little video journals that have been shown in countless Iraq war documentaries, Peirce uses this technique to heighten the scenes set in Iraq, and as a way of bringing the war back into focus during the road-trip sequences. Cinematographer Menges and Peirce use multiple film stocks and a lot of hand-held camera to ratchet up the intensity all throughout the film. It's a visually dynamic piece of filmmaking that constantly surprises on a formal level even during the simplest of scenes. Getting the chance to see a female director cover a big action scene in Hollywood movies is rare these days. During the opening fire-fight, Peirce and Menges' camera covers the action in interesting ways that you haven't quite seen before.
STOP-LOSS is a big, sprawling, slightly messy, but deeply heartfelt film, one that did not deserve to die on the vine at the box office last weekend. After grossing roughly $5 million dollars last weekend, I can't imagine it will last much longer at the theaters. Which, again, in my estimation, is a major problem. When a filmmaker like Peirce delivers an honest, smart, and entertaining film that's important to our societal landscape, what's to be said about the lack of interest on the part of our fellow citizens? It's pretty infuriating to me, and hell -- I didn't even make the film! All I can say is that both entertainment and enlightenment can be found in STOP-LOSS. It's one of the best films of the year.