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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Review: Stop-Loss (2008)

* *

Director: Kimberly Peirce
Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Abbie Cornish, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Stop-Loss is a movie with a lot of potential that falls just short of being good. The characters wander through the story, endlessly repeating the same lines in different variations as if the act of repetition will disguise the fact that the film only skims the very surface of the issues it wants us to believe it is exploring. Kimberley Peirce is a good director, her work on Boys Don’t Cry proves that, but this story is ultimately directionless, ending not with any kind of resolution, but with a metaphorical shrug.

Brandon (Ryan Phillippe), Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are three friends returning to their hometown after a tour of duty in Iraq. Tommy will be going back for another tour, but Brandon and Steve have finished and are getting ready to leave the army and move on with their lives. On what he believes to be his last day of service, Brandon finds out that he’s been stop-lossed and will return to Iraq for another tour. More out of anger than anything else, Brandon flees with the help of Steve’s fiancĂ©e Michelle (Abbie Cornish), first planning to go to Washington to seek the help of a Senator and then planning to go to Canada under an assumed identity.

It must be said that the first thirty or so minutes of this film, which explores the chaos of Iraq and the tension of returning home, are outstanding and say more about the war than all the speeches that take place during the rest of the film. The ambush scene, in which Brandon follows Steve into a residence and makes a split-second decision which will come to haunt him, is easily the most powerful part of the movie but it seems wasted given how briefly this moment is touched on and how quickly the story loses the thread.

There are a lot of problems with the film, but the biggest is with its protagonist. Brandon is the focus of the story and of the three returning friends, he’s the least interesting. Both Steve and Tommy are on the verge of cracking up, drowning their memories in booze and taking out their aggression on the women in their lives. Steve, afraid of trying to live as a civilian again after his experiences overseas, voluntarily re-enlists despite his promises to Michelle. Tommy, who acts out in various ways, is discharged from the army for bad behaviour and kicked out by his wife for much the same reason. In comparison, Brandon seems a little plastic, a little too perfect. The performance by Phillippe doesn’t do much to help; he yells a lot and makes a number of anguished faces but it just seems overwrought and there’s not much depth to the performance. Gordon-Levitt, who does a lot with what little the film provides for him, might have been a better choice to play Brandon.

[As a slight aside to anyone who has seen the film: did anyone else find it distracting, given Kimberly Peirce’s previous film, that the protagonist was named Brandon?]

Stop-Loss wants very badly to be a film that’s about something, but it only glosses over the issues it wants to explore. The situation in which Brandon finds himself is unfair, but simply pointing out that it’s unfair and offering little else by way of commentary is insufficient at this point. An excellent film could have come out of the first third of this one, but Stop-Loss isn’t it.

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