Director Kimberly Pierce made one of 1999′s very best films with the stunning Boys Don’t Cry. Eight years later, her follow-up, Stop-Loss, is kinda the opposite. Here, the boys do cry, and complain, a lot. Sure, they have every reason to be frustrated given the situation at hand, but the bottom-line is: the film is preachy and it conveys a message we’ve heard a thousand times over and over again.
Filmmakers who are opposed to the war in Iraq and are passionate about making movies on the subject have to realize that doing so is near box office suicide. For starters, this is the sixth contentious film in the last six months to tackle the subject so the message has already grown tiresome. Secondly, and maybe most importantly, I would imagine that the majority of the public would think that politics should be kept out their movies. People are going to the multiplexes to be entertained. There’s actually a scene where our protagonist tells his commanding officer (Timothy Olyphant) “With all due respect sir, fuck the president.” Stop-Loss is well intentioned in depicting soldiers who are weary of war and are forced to go back when they were supposed to be getting out. However, that doesn’t seem like the film’s first priority.
Where other films on the war were aimed at the general public, Stop-Loss focuses on Generation X and the soldiers. You can easily tell this from the dissonant music played periodically in the background. The film hones in on four characters; three of them soldiers returning to their small hometown in Texas. Longtime best friends Brandon (Ryan Phillippe) and Steve (Channing Tatum) have had enough after two tours, especially after their last battle, an ambush that involved the death of several of their friends and the permanent disability of another. Their camaraderie has been enhanced even further after Brandon saves Steve’s life during the ambush. They are expecting to get out of the service and Steve is finally planning to marry soulmate Michelle (Abbie Cornish). Then there’s Tommy, (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who knows he has to do another tour but is suffering a mental breakdown after witnessing the death of his best friend, Al “Preacher” Colson. Brandon is ‘stop-lossed’ and given orders to return to Iraq at the end of the month. He goes AWOL and with the help of Michelle, the pair decide to drive to Washington, D.C. to meet a Texas senator whom Brandon knows well enough that he might be able to do him a favor.
Although the picture is occasionally compelling and has hints of honesty, the script by Pierce and co-writer Mark Richard is a one-way ticket to nowhere. They really put the film in a no-win situation. The film has two optional endings and neither of them work. If it goes the way a certain plot development would lead you to believe, the movie would come off as hypocritical. Door number two, the way it does end, has the audience wondering what the point of the plot development was, which takes up roughly half of the film’s 113 minute running time. This is all disappointing because Stop-Loss does start out promising. The opening sequence involves our core of characters in a fight for their lives against Al-Qaeda. This scene is very intense and in terms of quality, it is reminiscent of the action sequences in last year’s The Kingdom.
Pierce still marks herself as a gifted director even with a failure. You don’t really think about a lot of the flaws in the film until after you leave the theater. Stop-Loss is rather easy to sit through. Pierce has a knack for delving into the minds of her characters. Her astute ability to do this is what made Boys Don’t Cry such a powerful character drama. Her depiction of Brandon’s calamity and how it tears him away from his family and friends has some profound moments.
Still, the main problem here is the script. Brandon decides to go AWOL and his mother and Michelle support him and even suggest for him to cross the border. Apparently they didn’t take into account that whether he goes back to the Army or goes AWOL, either way they’re not going to get to see much of him. Then Brandon and Michelle decide to drive to D.C. On the way, they run into obstacles. We come to the one psychological scene that doesn’t work. Brandon meets a small gang of petty criminals, has a brawl, takes a GAT from one of them and is suddenly in a state of delusion as he is telling them to get on their knees and start praying to Allah. He shoots two of them in the shoulder and then the film moves on as if Pierce didn’t want to have to deal with any consequences of this action so she just decided to exclude them. There are several other occasions where it seems like a viable scene is skipped over.
The cast is the best thing Stop-Loss has to offer. Ryan Phillippe and Joseph Gordon-Levitt continue to show why they are among the best actors of their age. Phillippe nails his character’s southern heritage and he is continually plagued about his mistakes and the lives they cost. Brandon isn’t scared, he’s pissed off. His onus to his country has been worn out. Gordon-Levitt gives a fine, under-the-radar performance as the woebegone Tommy, who is well-hearted but can’t stop to look around and see what he has in his life that he should be thankful for. Abbie Cornish has little to say or do but when called upon, she delivers. Thankfully, the film never sentimentally submits to a love story between Brandon and Michelle. All that is needed is a sense of mutual friendship that has been forged over the years. The real surprise is Channing Tatum, who for the first time shows that he does have some acting ability. Steve listens to reason and tries to get Brandon to do the same. When Brandon can’t understand his motives, their friendship is threatened.
It is surprising to see a script by a gifted storyteller be such a mess. As you can tell from the above paragraph, the characters are well defined, but the story isn’t well thought out enough and the result is an audience left ambivalent. It needs fine tuning and the preachy messages need trimming down. We can at least be thankful that the material is in the hands of a director who I just can’t imagine being capable of making a bad film, although Stop-Loss certainly has many of the ingredients. Hopefully this will be the only film of Pierce’s career that comes close.