A bunch of American army boys piss away their time at camp, horsing around and yelling obscenities at each other while they wait their next posting. The style is gritty and raw. There are no Hollywood glamour shots of pretty boy stars Ryan Phillippe, Channing Tatum or Joseph Gordon-Levitt; there is just confusion over where their day is headed. Before long, the team is manning a road blockade. Director Kimberly Pierce keeps the framing and the editing tight in this opening sequence and shoots the intensity high into the clear-blue, Iraq sky. Each car that approaches the young, scattered soldiers could be a disaster. One second they’re lusting over a girl back home, the next they find themselves in the middle of a full-on ambush. The lot of them all fall into line and show what good soldiers are made of – boys that become men in a moment’s notice without thinking. And then they fight. Moves are made in as calculated a fashion as is allowed in the back alleys of a foreign land. Some of the men live and some die fighting. Within minutes, “Stop-Loss” has you and then without warning, the film suddenly turns into a hip-hop musical montage, establishing the stop-and-start pulse of the film that ultimately leaves it for a loss.
It has been nearly ten years since Pierce made her fearless directorial debut with “Boys Don’t Cry”. It was a commanding assault on the viewer’s nerves with each scene building panic and mounting anxiety. You were never given a chance to breathe and the tragic story it told became unforgettable as a result. This is why it is all so strange to see her impose breaks upon the viewer. Not only does it grind the flow to a halt in the dirt but it also exposes the need to repackage the current wave of Iraq war themed films. On the one hand, it makes some sense to cut the film together in an MTV-inspired style to market the war to the generation that is actually fighting it (it should also be noted that the film is MTV produced). On the other hand though, this approach subsequently comes across as a compromised version of Pierce’s potential vision. That said, perhaps the new design is necessary in order to get the film’s important message across and heard.
The message in this latest condemnation of the Iraq war effort is to bring attention to the “stop-loss” process. The term itself refers to the army’s right to force soldiers into another tour of duty at the end of the term they voluntarily signed up for. It is only supposed to be invoked when the war is still ongoing so you can imagine the outrage felt by Brandon King (Phillippe) as he is expecting to be signing his discharge papers and is told instead that he is shipping back to Iraq. Infuriated by his government’s backdoor approach to get around the lack of a draft, Brandon goes AWOL in search of a way out. While taking advantage of the soldiers that enlisted freely to fight for their country is appalling enough, it becomes even more so when you see how messed up the returning soldiers have become after balancing being boys and being men in such devastating situations. Pierce’s subtle presentation of the young men of Middle America is smart enough not to exaggerate their psychological damage but their table manners speak volumes to make her point. These are men who cannot carry on a conversation without recounting atrocious experiences they suffered through and have no concept of how uncomfortable they are making everyone around them. Another tour of duty could reasonably crush them if it doesn’t kill them. With that in mind, Brandon’s escape is not just warranted but imperative.
At one point, Brandon makes a homecoming speech to the people of his Texas town. Midway, he is overwhelmed by how much he has been affected by the simple sights and smells of his home and he cannot go on. Everything he was fighting for becomes clear to him but his speech is interrupted by a fellow officer who favors a more crowd-rousing message. People don’t want to face the reality of the war; they just want to hear that their side is winning. And while Pierce’s point is important and still firmly made, it is impossible to feel as if this film that took so many years to make is actually the film she intended and not a film that was designed to profit from a specific market. Still, it is worth applauding for providing a product that will be most enjoyed and appreciated by the demographic that is actually fighting on the front lines as opposed to an older generation that until now has been able to just sit back in the theatre and quietly criticize the war from afar.
Review by Joseph Bélanger