Can a person dislike a movie that has it’s heart in exactly the right place? I’m so middle ground with Kimberly Pierce’s Stop-Loss that I can’t say that I hated it, but I can’t say I loved it. And since the movie is almost like a patchwork quilt of scenes sewn together, sometimes awkwardly and without the logic and flow of a story or theme, I ended up loving parts and then watching the wall of the theatre during other parts. Really, watching the wall.
The film follows a lot of the best of the best as they finish their tours in Iraq and find out that fitting in at home is near impossible. Home being Texas, and they don’t hold back in letting you know that these are good ol’ boys. The leader of this handsome bunch is Brandon King, played by an adequate Ryan Phillippe, who finds out that his tour isn’t done. He’s been Stop-Lossed. Basically this is a way for the government to get their trained soldiers back into the line of fire during a time of war because army recruits aren’t signing up like they used to. Only…the war is over. How can they get away with this? By not drawing attention to it.
But Brandon is going to fight it and so is Pierce. As an audience member you feel that frustration. It’s palpable and Pierce has your attention. She could use this moment to really make her statement clear and concise, but after awhile you wish she’d stop talking. Standing upon her podium she’s less interested in telling a story and more interested in making several points. Bulletin point by bulletin point.
This leads us on an odyssey of sorts as we follow Brandon on an AWOL cross country lark as he tries to decide what he’s going to do. He teams up with his best friend and fellow soldier’s girlfriend, and drama ensues, but never really escalates. The problem is that since Brandon doesn’t know what to do the story never becomes cohesive enough for us to become emotionally involved.
After the first hour we know that Stop-Lossing is a back door draft and it’s completely unfair, and the movie seems to know this, so we watch several fractured scenes in which we see how our young men are affected by war. Too many. Pierce takes the true stories that influenced the various sequences and lays them over the top of the scenes even if it means breaking character to get there.
In one such scene Brandon visits a military hospital to talk to one of the soldiers that he led into an ambush during the war. Listen to that sentence again: having gone AWOL, after the movie has made a point of saying that he’s a fugitive being diligently hunted on all sides, Brandon visits a military hospital. It’s like a serial killer on the FBI most wanted list walking into a police station.
Because these message scenes don’t always connect and sometimes come out of left field and end without really furthering the story along, the emotional center is misaligned and it turns into a lot of emoting by actors that shouldn’t always be emoting.
Ryan Phillippe is always beter in a film when the emotions play under the surface, here they spill over a few times (too many). Channing Tatum is best when he quietly broods, and isn’t bad when he’s drunk. Abbie Cornish as the girlfriend gets her own chances to be affected by everything. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the only one who comes close to disappearing into his role without the emoting, but that role only has one place to go and he does everything he can with it.
And in order to pull us back in emotionally as we reach the end Pierce piles on another war story, which would be fine if what we saw in the first twenty minutes wasn’t enough, but it was. What we witness ahppen to Brandon in the beginning is devestating. Why did we ned that little extra bit towards the end? It becomes extraneous; the worst kind of heavy handed manipulation.
And what’s up with the white subtitling that disappears after the first 30 minutes? Stop-Loss is at odds with itself. Not sure who it’s audience is and what it wants to be. I think Pierce had to sign a contract that obligated her to put in a certain number (too many) of war footage montages with popular rock and roll music blaring over the top. Hey, MTV has to sell the soundtrack, right?
But before it falls apart the first 20 minutes or so is tense. A war torn country is captured splendidly. You feel the soldiers’ unease as they pull cars over at a check point. In the background you hear their radio squaking, somewhere else something bad is happening. It’s subtle but adds an edge to the proceedings, a sense of foreboding.
Maybe it was because of the way the studio promoted the film (for 15 year old girls and MTV youth, who probably need to know what’s going on — I didn’t know what Stop-Loss was before seeing the movie), but I was surprised by the ferocity of the violence. It goes to show that when there’s a goal and real motivation for the characters on screen Pierce can direct like the best of them.