This review was written for the festival screening of "Stop-Loss."
South by Southwest
AUSTIN -- A solidly crafted and commercial-issue film, Kimberly Peirce's "Stop-Loss" drags a couple of the Iraq War's uglier aspects into the light, personalizing them in a highly soldier-sympathetic way that has resonance for peaceniks and those who support the war -- though each camp might view it as skewed toward the other's agenda.
A young cast and hotheaded melodramatic streak make it broadly accessible, perhaps enough so to help the film scrape past boxoffice challenges faced by other Iraq-centered features.
Interestingly, Peirce offers some problematic protagonists who don't get the treatment we expect. Of the three main characters returning home from Iraq, one's a screw-up (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) both in and out of uniform and another (Channing Tatum) is a jingoistic thug who would give frat boys a bad name. We see flashes of humanity in both, but neither character is developed in a way that offers any insight into viewers who find them repellent. The problems they face upon their return to small-town Texas resemble the kind of post-traumatic symptoms suffered by many returning veterans (a topic the film dramatizes intently), but in these cases it appears that the men were volatile alcoholics to begin with.
Ryan Phillippe's Brandon King, the third main character, is a slightly different matter. A straight-arrow Texan who led his men well and returned to a hero's welcome, King is shocked to learn that he's being sent back to Iraq against his will. Feeling that the Army has reneged on its end of the bargain, King impetuously goes AWOL, setting out (with his best friend's girl) toward Washington -- where he naively hopes that the senator who gladhanded him on homecoming day will somehow overrule the president's stop-loss order.
The road trip allows Brandon to make some stops that, while sometimes straining credibility (would a fugitive fleeing the Military Police really go visit a veterans' hospital?), offer Peirce chances to examine the war's human cost. Some play out less naturally than others: While Victor Rasuk has a winning ease in his short appearance as Brandon's wounded buddy, it's hard not to view his character -- who has lost two limbs, is badly scarred and was blinded in the firefight that opens the movie -- as much more than a tool to stun the audience.
Phillippe handles his role well, but in the end the film seems unsure of what to do with him. Should Brandon flee the country, rejecting a shameful military policy? Or does his internal sense of honor require him to follow even an unjust order?
"Stop-Loss" has painted itself into a dramatic corner, which might be the most honest expression of the filmmaker's empathy for the men and women serving in Iraq.
Paramount/MTV Films/Scott Rudin Prods./Peirce Pictures
Director: Kimberly Peirce
Screenwriters: Kimberly Peirce, Mark Richard
Producers: Gregory Goodman, Kimberly Peirce, Mark Roybal, Scott Rudin
Executive producers: Pamela Abdy, Alli Shearmur
Director of photography: Chris Menges
Production designer: David Wasco
Music: John Powell
Costume designer: Marlene Stewart
Editor: Claire Simpson
Brandon King: Ryan Phillippe
Michelle: Abbie Cornish
Tommy Burgess: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Steve Shriver: Channing Tatum
Ida King: Linda Emond
Roy King: Ciaran Hinds
Isaac Butler: Rob Brown
Rico Rodriguez: Victor Rasuk
Boot Miller: Timothy Olyphant
Running time -- 112 minutes
MPAA rating: R