Any suspicions that Kimberly Peirce
was a one-note art house auteur (her first and only feature was 1999's Boys Don't Cry) will be immediately assuaged by the full-throttle war-film assuredness of the opening sequences of her Iraq war film Stop-Loss. Shot in part like the homemade videos that modern American soldiers often make of their own experiences (filmed on the battlefield and then edited, usually with pop music soundtracks, on their personal computers), it establishes with smash-bang audacity and authenticity the camaraderie and of an infantry squad serving in Tikrit near the end of their rotation. The combat witnessed is typically brutal, up-close, and all-inclusive (military and civilian) in terms of casualties. Without having to put much of anything into words, Peirce has put her fresh-faced young cast (Ryan Phillippe
, Channing Tatum
, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
) through a meat-grinder of an ordeal that makes it perfectly clear that once these guys are back stateside, patriotic or not, they're done.
Like In the Valley of Elah
-- which this film occasionally seems like an MTV/Varsity Blues pop variation of -- most of Stop-Loss is set back in the States. The war is seen mostly in flickers and video-montages, the kind that keep a man up at night. In one particularly grueling scene set at a military hospital, a hideously scarred soldier missing two limbs confides that at night his ward sounds like a horror movie, with all the nightmares and screaming. Also like Elah, Peirce's script (co-written with Mark Richard) is steeped in oorah military brio and discipline, where there is little questioning of war itself. Stop-Loss is, however, a message movie, and no matter how artfully Peirce directs her cast and tries to avoid any sense of political polemic, there's just no avoiding that message, a fact that nearly scuppers the whole film. Article continues below
The message of Stop-Loss is one that few on either side of the Iraq debate would argue, that the practice of the film's title -- where soldiers can have their term of service extended indefinitely in order to make up for falling recruitment levels and there being no draft -- sucks. Once the rattled squad is returned home to Texas, amidst a blizzard of flags and cheers, they seem held together with little more than duct tape and battlefield bravado. It's not hard to believe, then, the swiftness with which the formerly gung-ho squad leader Brandon King (Phillippe) reacts to the news that he's been stop-lossed and is getting sent back to Iraq. On being told by his commanding officer that it's the President's right to keep soldiers serving as long as he wishes, King (a good Texas boy and patriot who'd clearly rather light himself on fire than disrespect his country) responds, "With all due respect, sir, fuck the President."
Things go downhill after that, both for the film and for King, who goes AWOL and takes off cross-country with his best friend's ex-fiancée (Aussie actress Abbie Cornish
) on a half-baked, quixotic mission to get his senator in Washington to help him. The road-film being the hoariest of screenplay devices, it wears thin fast, quickly losing the impressive momentum that the first quarter of the film had attained. By separating King from his squadmates, most of whom are undergoing some form of PTSD meltdown, Peirce also loses the cast's organic-feeling camaraderie (not to mention giving short shrift to some heartbreaking work by Gordon-Levitt), one of the best things her film had going for it.
In Stop-Loss, Peirce (whose brother served in Iraq) certainly does right by the soldiers (real and imagined) in terms of not resorting to cheap polemic from one side of the debate or the other. But even her impressive handling of the actors, a pop approach that's glossy without being shallow, voluminous background research, and some glorious cinematography by Chris Menges can't obscure the problems of a seriously dithering screenplay. It's not to say that Peirce should have rushed into something after Boys Don't Cry, but after seeing the honorable intentions but flawed results of Stop-Loss, it's possible that nine years was perhaps too long a gestation.