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Overall Rating

Awesome: 2.94%
Worth A Look: 35.29%
Average: 20.59%
Pretty Bad38.24%
Total Crap: 2.94%

4 reviews, 10 user ratings

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by Rob Gonsalves

"It's not a political film, it's a Kimberly Peirce film. View accordingly."
4 stars

Kimberly Peirce, who directed one of 1999’s best films with "Boys Don’t Cry," seems to have a thing about androgyny leaning a bit towards masculinity. Brandon Teena in "Boys Don’t Cry" and now the young soldiers in her belated new film, "Stop-Loss," are rangy yet fragile-looking, capable of violence yet susceptible to it.

If ever there was a director to bring Alexander the Great to the big screen (not likely since Oliver Stone made such a botch of it), Peirce would be the one. This lesbian filmmaker treats gender off-handedly, and her male characters — the non-psychotic ones, anyway — are handled sympathetically, even tenderly. The men in Stop-Loss are screwed up, wounded, haunted, hapless but never ridiculous.

Stop-Loss deals with an under-acknowledged reality of military service: the “backdoor draft” that obliges certain soldiers to return to combat even after their tour is done. The stop-loss policy has been in place since the end of the Vietnam War, and it has been employed under George H.W. Bush (during the Gulf War) and under Clinton. A soldier who is “stop-lossed” back to Iraq in the current conflict, though, finds him/herself re-recruited into a war that was never formally declared by Congress. It doesn’t matter, though; a soldier’s contract states that he or she may be involuntarily cycled back into action. Ironically, the better a soldier is, the more likely he or she will be judged “essential to the national security of the United States.”

Of the three soldiers profiled in Stop-Loss, two are willing to go back to Iraq, and one — Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) — wants to stay home in Brazos, Texas. Brandon has had enough of killing, enough of seeing his buddies torn to shreds. He returns home with his childhood friends Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who don’t seem to know what to do with themselves among civilians: they get drunk, they get into idiotic fights. Steve wants a career in the Army; Tommy seems addicted to the adrenaline of combat, the one thing he might be good at. Peirce, who wrote the script with the novelist Mark Richard (who appears alongside Laurie Metcalf in a poignant scene), establishes Brazos as a home worth returning to; she respects the rural way of living and relaxing. The sadness of the stateside segments is that Tommy and Steve no longer quite belong home.

The movie is not as hard-hitting as I imagine many critics would like it to be. It stays mostly apolitical and pro-troops, and it paints in broad, familiar strokes. Peirce, whose brother served in Afghanistan and Iraq, wants to make a simple film accessible to young viewers (MTV Films co-produced it), who won’t have seen post-war films like The Best Years of Our Lives, The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, or even Born on the Fourth of July. (There are now people old enough for military service who weren't even born yet when Born on the Fourth came out. No comment.) Peirce wants to perform a public service. But she isn’t a public servant, and her artistry gets in the way. A hack director might’ve been better at putting across the melodramatic peaks and lows of the narrative; Peirce works best with muted shades of melancholy and regret. When Brandon resists being stop-lossed and goes on the run, Steve’s fiancée Michelle (Abbie Cornish) goes with him, and Stop-Loss becomes a rather depressed road movie, exploring the paranoid world of stop-lossed AWOL soldiers living day to day in shabby, nondescript motel rooms.

The concept of the violent war vet who can’t shut off his fight-or-flee instinct at home is, I suppose, factual, but decades of movies have laid a blanket of must over it. Peirce takes some of the oldness out of it by focusing on the irrationality of soldiers torn between their duties to their country and to their loved ones. Ryan Phillippe is about as expressive as Peirce can make him, which isn’t much; the film belongs to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who claims ownership of it when his Tommy pauses drunkenly at a diamond-store window, then tosses a beer bottle through it, as if that seemed to him the only sensible thing to do.

Peirce brings out the violent joys and passions and soul-sickness of her delicate characters. "Stop-Loss" isn’t much as a narrative, but it does herald the return of a singular voice that’s been silent for far too long.

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originally posted: 03/31/08 11:53:05
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/08/17 morris campbell not bad 3 stars
6/25/09 Monday Morning Not bad at all - lots of real life drama 4 stars
8/11/08 KingNeutron Absolutely gripping movie - lots of sympathy for the soldiers plight. 4 stars
8/11/08 Man out 6 bucks I enjoy dramas about "dumb, stupid animals" acting as the temporal power of Nazi Pope 4 stars
7/26/08 mike pretty boring for me 2 stars
4/25/08 Rebecca Marchand Very moving considering this really is happening yet predictable. 4 stars
4/07/08 David Henry Caught between love of country and knowlege of tragedy of war. 5 stars
4/07/08 Stephanie Bruce This Movie really hit home as hubby just got back from Iraq 4 stars
3/29/08 Renee Griffin It was pretty good, I will see again 4 stars
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  28-Mar-2008 (R)
  DVD: 08-Jul-2008



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