Over 80,000 U.S. soldiers have carried out their contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq, been told they were going home, and then suddenly, against their will, have been sent right back into the fight for an undisclosed amount of time. This issue of being stop-lost is becoming more prevalent as conflicts in the Middle East rage on, and not enough people enlist.
It’s been nine years since director Kimberly Peirce has made a feature, not since her strikingly bold debut of Boy’s Don’t Cry. When her brother enlisted in the military after 9/11, she found inspiration in a harsh reality that lies in the fine print of an Army contract.
Ryan Phillippe plays Brandon King, a soldier who has just come home from Iraq, only to find that he is, involuntarily, being sent back. Rejecting the idea, he treks cross country, in an attempt to resolve the issue and clear up the mistake.
The men who served with him remain in their Texas town, fighting deep internal struggles of post-traumatic stress disorder, not being able to let go of the dehumanizing images they’ve seen.
Peirce is fully capable of delivering shocking images that startle yet somehow move us, she proved that with Boy’s Don’t Cry. The problem with Stop-Loss is that it aims too high. Each character gives long-winded, heartfelt speeches that often don’t hit their mark. I’m not quite sure whose fault it is, because the words feel right, the camera is well placed, but some of the action is forced.
Phillippe (much better in Crash and Flags of Our Fathers) doesn’t seem half as committed as his character is to the idea of becoming free from war. Phillippe casts his melodramatic tendencies just a bit too much, making us a little bored. Channing Tatum plays Brandon’s best friend Steve. While Tatum delivers a decent supporting turn, he isn’t given much to do except be an imposing, male-dominant figure that we’ve seen him as before (and that he pulled off in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints). This kid has talent; he just needs the material to prove it.
That’s the bad, and if you look for it, you’ll find some good. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is another soldier from their group who is having the most trouble forgetting what he saw. Gordon-Levitt’s descent into madness by diving head first into a bottle is raw, real and emotionally powerful. He has proved himself a God of independent film, giving stunning performances in Manic, Mysterious Skin, Brick and The Lookout. He steals the show in Stop-Loss, his face one of vengeful regret. I only wish he was given more screen time. This is one of the finest actors of his generation; he’ll be around for a long, long time.
Supporting turns by Australian actress Abbie Cornish (Candy), Ciarán Hinds (There Will Be Blood), and Timothy Olyphant do not go unnoticed, but they aren’t enough to keep the movie from its repetitiveness. Peirce manages to shock (a bloody war battle could be admired for its authenticity), but she cannot escape the unsympathetic trend that audiences simply aren’t connecting with these Iraq-war films.
For my money, I’d put Phillippe in a supporting role and let the whole film rest on Gordon-Levitt’s shoulders. He has carried movies before, and he has pulled it off each time. The film would have no problem hitting its emotional arch’s, if Gordon-Levitt was doing the screaming. B-