With the exception of one effort, movies about the Iraq war have all faced an uphill battle with American audiences. Continually, it seems that ticket buyers are disinterested in seeing anything remotely resembling real life, featuring performances that are honest and true, and that look to illuminate on topical situations that are important to our societal landscape. For way too many people, it’s all about CGI trickery, franchises, and sequels, and they don’t want to know about anything else. I’ve grown increasingly disinterested in movies that resemble video games, and have been exploring older films and other titles that have slipped through the cracks. A few nights ago while on diaper duty with my infant son, I was surfing the movie channels, and I happened upon Kimberly Peirce’s searing and wildly underrated drama Stop-Loss, which is easily one of the finest contemporary war movies from the past decade, an ambitious work that might have bit off a tad more than it had time to chew (I’ve always wondered if a director’s cut was lurking somewhere…?), but a film that covers intense, hugely emotional material, all centering on a subject that is as enraging as it is frustratingly understandable. This blistering film died an undeserved death at the box office despite mostly positive critical notices, but too often, it seems as if people enjoy ignoring what’s going on around them when it comes to their choices in entertainment. This film simultaneously operates as a tribute to our men and women who put themselves in harm’s way on the battlefield, while also acting as a scathing critique of military policy. That Peirce is able to juggle multiple story strands within a very intimate framework is a further reminder of her excellent filmmaking and storytelling abilities. This was her first film in almost a decade since she burst on the indie scene with the uncompromisingly raw Boys Don’t Cry, and she’d follow up Stop-Loss with her updating of the classic horror entry Carrie; I hope she’s back with a new project very soon on the big screen.
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 Fields, 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, with their narrative recalling some beats from Hal Ashby’s Oscar winning Vietnam war drama Coming Home. All of them are hard drinkers, and are not without their own sets of personal issues which stem from before they left for Iraq. Needless to say, 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, in one of the film’s most harrowing moments, 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 standard issue military contract but the option isn’t executed for every soldier; this is an at-random thing. Naturally, Brandon objects, as 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 story stings of authenticity and I’m not surprised; her step-brother signed up to fight for America as a direct result of 9/11, so I’m assuming that some of this material had to have been culled from his experiences. 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 to confront a Senator that welcomed him upon his arrival home. Steve’s girlfriend Michelle, the Australian actress Abbie Cornish (gorgeous and extremely sympathetic), 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 its 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. Only snag — you’re never able to come back to America.
Peirce and her creative team also spike the film with cut-ins of the soldier’s experience. Taking the form of personal videos shot during combat and personal downtime, these interludes enrich the story with a sense of the personal and a sense of the dangerous. 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. During the opening fire-fight, Peirce and Menges‘ camera covers the action in interesting ways that you haven’t quite seen before. The performances are uniformly excellent. Phillippe was fantastic in the lead role, bring conviction and determination to the part of a man at odds with himself and pretty much everyone around him. Because of his good looks, he’s been an undervalued dramatic actor; see his work in Crash, Flags of Our Fathers, and Breach as more examples of his abilities. But his performance in Stop-Loss should be considered a revelation for him as an artist. Sure, he’s still buff and camera-ready, but there was a somber, soulful quality in his performance that’s 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 in a major way. Tatum, who burst on the scene in the indie A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints before recently becoming a mega-star thanks to Magic Mike and the 21 Jump Street series, was also very effective in his role as Brandon’s best friend and severely traumatized soldier. Late in the film, Brandon and Steve get into a physical confrontation that was startling in its believability and sadness. And Gordon-Levitt, who at the time was hot off the success of the ultra-stylized indie Brick, struck all the proper notes as a deeply troubled young man who simply cannot get his personal life in order. This is a big, sprawling, purposefully messy, extraordinarily heartfelt film, one that did not deserve to wither on the vine at the box office. When a filmmaker like Peirce delivers an honest, smart, and entertaining film that’s important to our national conversation, what’s to be said about the lack of interest on the part of our fellow citizens?