Director/screenwriter Kimberly Peirce can’t be accused of taking on easy subjects on her films. Her 1999 film, Boys Don’t Cry which chronicled the real-life story of Brandon Teena, a trans-gendered individual who preferred to identify as a male and was brutally murdered when it was discovered he was born a female, brought Peirce great acclaim. Nearly ten years later, Peirce returned to the big screen with Stop-Loss, the story of a soldier who has willingly completed his tour of duty in Iraq, only to find himself arbitrarily ordered to return to field duty by the Army.
One has to wonder if Americans are in the mood for movies about a war that is still being fought and shown and written about in the news every day. Given the tepid reviews and nearly anemic box office receipts for previously released films with an Iraqi-war theme such as Paul Haggis’s In The Valley Of Elah, and Brian DePalma’s Redacted, the answer seems to be one of indifference, if not a flat out no. Understandably, Americans don’t seem ready to see the Iraqi war played out on screen.
When Stop-Loss was released in the United States in March of 2008, reviews were mixed and the box office was tepid. Hopefully, Stop-Loss gets a second life on DVD. I say this because Peirce’s film, which she wrote with Mark Richard, does away with the piousness that is so often present in war themed films, and attempts to show the broad range of emotions–rage, fear, commitment, love of country–soldiers and their families may go through.
The emotions of the soldiers are brought into focus during the first few minutes of Stop-Loss, which shows amateur video of a group of young soldiers. Their activity is rowdy and rude, and it’s clear that they’re not Rambo’s or angels, just products of a post 9/11 group of kids that wanted to do their duty to protect America. With exaggerated bravado, they sing “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” Toby Keith’s anthem of 9/11 payback.
Just days before coming home, Staff Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), and his men are drawn into a firefight while overseeing a checkpoint in Tikrit. Some of the men are killed, others wounded and all badly shaken. As a result, Brandon and his best friend Steve (Channing Tatum) are glad to be leaving the army as soon as the tour is over.
Once they return home to Brazos, Texas Brandon is shocked to learn that the military has invoked its stop-loss policy to force him and Steve to return to Iraq for another tour of duty. Upset at what he sees as the military’s ultimate betrayal, Brandon goes AWOL. It is at this point that Brandon and Steve’s fiancé, Michele (Abbie Cornish), go on a road trip to find a way out of Brandon’s predicament. As time passes, we learn that their journey is really a road to nowhere. As Stop-Loss progresses, it becomes clear that, especially for Brandon, there are no good outcomes. He can live as a fugitive or return to combat.
A good deal of praise goes to Ryan Phillippe. With Stop-Loss, he has effectively shed the matinee idol hunk tag put on him several years ago, and turned in an emotionally riveting performance as a man with no options. He seethes with anger and seems burdened with sadness.
Kimberly Peirce deserves high praise for creating a well crafted, even handed film about a war many of us are still struggling with.
The disc has a few notable bonus items. Things start with an audio commentary by co-writer and director Kimberly Peirce and co-writer Mark Richard. Next, there are two featurettes: “The Making of Stop-Loss,” about twenty minutes of behind-the-scenes comments on the filmmaking in which the director tells us she was striving for the soldier’s point of view; and “A Day in Boot Camp,” about ten minutes with the young cast learning the ways of real soldiering. Then, there are eleven deleted scenes in non-anamorphic widescreen, about eighteen minutes’ worth, with an optional director’s commentary.
View Stop-Loss production stills.