April 3, 2008

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Stop-Loss (R)
Ryan Phillippe plays a soldier who has reached his limit of war in Stop-Loss, a surprisingly effective little drama about the guys who think they’re out but get pulled back in to tours in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Army soldiers Brandon (Phillippe) and his friends are just days away from finishing their tour of duty in Iraq. For Brandon, Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), that means returning to the Texas town where Brandon has family — mom Ida (Linda Emond) and dad Roy (Ciaran Hinds) — and where Steve and Tommy have girls waiting for them, fiancée Michelle (Abbie Cornish) and new wife Jeanie (Mamie Gummer), respectively. But shortly before leaving Iraq, the men find themselves chasing a car of insurgents that leads them into an alley that turns into an ambush and leaves some of the men dead and at least one, Rico Rodriguez (Victor Rasuk), horribly injured.

The men do then return to Texas and to a hero’s welcome but they are all variously scarred by the hell they’ve just lived through. Almost immediately, Steven and Tommy drink too much. Steve winds up nearly naked and digging a pit to hide in in Michelle’s front yard and Tommy is kicked out of the house by his new wife. For Brandon, though, the emotional breaking point comes when he shows up at the military base to be discharged. Instead, he’s stop-lossed back to Iraq. An argument with his commanding officer (Timothy Olyphant) leads him to send Brandon to the brig. Brandon breaks free from the soldiers escorting him and goes AWOL. Once he gets home, his mother immediately offers to drive him to Mexico but Brandon decides instead to travel to Washington, D.C., in a desperate hope that a senator who was at the welcome home ceremony will help him find some way out of his conscription. Since his parents’ will be watched by the police, Michelle offers to take Brandon — in part, she says, because she’s worried that the same thing will happen to Steve.

As with Peirce’s first movie, Boys Don’t Cry, Stop-Loss does a good job at getting the voice of its characters. Here, the boys are patriotic and brave and have been raised to respect the country, flag and military. They believe in the rightness of the choices they made. Peirce has a talent at giving the realities of a small town without being patronizing to its citizens or making them seem simple-minded. All the men the movie focuses on — Brandon, Steve and Tommy — have complex feelings toward the military, ones that make the kind of grand gesture a movie like this might otherwise consider (if it were, say, written in the vein of the screechy Lions for Lambs) seem false. These characters don’t fully understand what’s happened to them or what to do about it — even Brandon, whose actions are the most dramatic, doesn’t completely know what to believe. He’s simply reached a point where he can’t go one step further; he can’t fight, he can’t watch men die, he can’t feel responsible for the loss of any more of his friends. The moment when he breaks free, we don’t feel like we’re watching a young man make a political statement, we’re simply watching a basic human flight response. Brandon, perhaps convinced by the violence and drunkenness of his friends, just doesn’t think his sanity can survive another day in uniform.

I liked the confused, naïve actions of this movie’s characters and the sense of despair (but without political finger-pointing) that floods through every scene. Even when the guys say something about “the war” or the way they were ordered to fight it, those higher-function geopolitical ideas don’t seem to matter as much as the simpler and much more horrible cause and effect of what being in Iraq did to them and their buddies.

Stop-Loss is ultimately much more effective at making its point (which, basically, is that this war sucks and is deeply unfair in many ways to the men who’ve had to fight it) because it doesn’t spend the movie having its characters arguing the politics or making speeches. With surprising depth by the movie’s heartbreaking end, Philippee and Gordon-Levitt in particular argue against carelessly waging war simply by showing us the cruel effect it can have on its warriors. B

Rated R for graphic violence and pervasive language. Directed by Kimberly Peirce and written by Peirce and Mark Richard, Stop-Loss is an hour and 52 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Paramount Pictures and MTV Films.