Dir: Kimberly Peirce. US. 2008. 113 mins.
Nine years after Boys Don't Cry, Kimberly Peirce finally returns with a second film, but Stop-Loss, a portrait of American men returning from Iraq and the stop-loss policy that keeps sending them back there, is as earnest and heavy-handed as her first film was sensitive and poetic.
Instead of focusing tightly on the stop-loss question, Peirce, who co-wrote the screenplay with Mark Richard, can't resist getting into every issue the invasion of Iraq has engendered - the confusion between 9/11 and the Iraq conflict, the post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by troops, the army's failure to tackle mental problems and alcoholism and the suppression of disabled veterans, for example.
In addition to a myriad issues, she slots in every war movie cliche in the book - the group of friends torn apart by the conflict, the US soldier's crisis of conscience when he kills innocent women and children in the line of duty, the two best friends who fall out and fight over questions of honour, the troubled army buddy who commits suicide, the conclusion that you are really fighting for your friends and not your country. The Deer Hunter, Born On The Fourth Of July, The Best Years Of Our Lives, Platoon, even Jarhead spring to mind in Peirce's frantic collage of a war movie.
She then ramps it all up with heavy rock music, flash cutting and on-screen handwriting in an effort to catch the teen audience (MTV Films presents the film), but her efforts will be in vain. Stop-Loss will probably suffer the same fate of other Iraq/Afghanistan movies In The Valley Of Elah, Rendition and Lions For Lambs - indifference from war-weary domestic audiences.
International markets will be equally uninterested, although Peirce's name and the ugly portrait of the US administration might stir up some publicity.
There's no lack of passion here and Peirce clearly cares for the working class men and women she portrays - just as she did in Boys Don't Cry. She also enlists a fine young cast of actors led by Ryan Phillippe, Abbie Cornish and Channing Tatum. Philippe in particular carries an intelligence and brooding screen presence that finally marks him out as an adult leading man.
The film opens as a video diary of one unit's daily life in Iraq and shifts gear onto film when the unit is attacked at a checkpoint by a carful of insurgents. The unit chases the car into an alleyway where they are ambushed and several of the men are killed or wounded.
Back in Texas, the unit's commander - Sgt Brandon King (Phillippe) is decorated with a Purple Heart. His tours of duty are over and he is preparing to resume civilian life with his best friend Steve Shriver (Tatum) who is checking out of the army to marry his childhood sweetheart Michele (Cornish).
But when he goes to the base after a weekend of heavy drinking to hand in his army gear, he is told that he has been stop-lossed and will be required to return to Iraq. In fury, he steals a car and goes AWOL, accompanied by a sympathetic Michele who agrees to drive him to Washington DC to seek help from a senator.
Stop Loss is a cluttered, noisy film, and the soldiers themselves get into so many scraps, brawls and beatings - Steve even hits his girlfriend - that it's hard to imagine they weren't scrappers and brawlers before they went to Iraq. 'What's a party without a fight'' says Phillippe at one point. Not so far from the thugs who killed Brandon Teena in Boys Don't Cry, perhaps, and not the most desirable characters with whom to spend two hours.
Scott Rudin Productions
Director of photography