“Stop-Loss” is a wrenching, frustrating, gut-punch of a movie. It looks unflinchingly at the brutality of the Iraq War as well as the policies that propel its seemingly endless continuation.
And yet, the film is also entertaining. Taking the form of a chase/fugitive-from-the-law picture, “Stop-Loss” is engaging, occasionally suspenseful and terrifically-acted.
The film begins in Iraq, and boasts some absolutely gripping scenes as Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) inadvertently leads his men into an ambush.
Director Kimberly Peirce shoots these scenes almost entirely from the perspective of the soldiers using handheld cameras that approximate the chaos of combat. The scenes are visceral and compelling, but their most important effect is creating empathy by putting the audience in the soldiers’ shoes.
Several men die in the ambush, and one is severely wounded, which leaves King feeling both guilty and even more determined to leave the army once his tour of duty is finished.
But when King finally does return to his Texas hometown, he is stop-lossed – an underhanded presidential policy that forces soldiers who have completed their tours of duty to return to active combat.
King, though, refuses to go back to Iraq, and he decides to fight back by going AWOL. His plan is to travel to Washington and ask a congressman he met at a rally for help – a plan that illustrates Brandon’s idealism as well as his na’veté.
Along the way, he is helped by Michele (Abby Cornish) – the fiancée of King’s best friend and fellow soldier Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum) – by driving him cross country, as well as helping him confront his demons about Iraq.
Like last year’s “In the Valley of Elah,” “Stop-Loss” is really about the effect of war on soldiers’ psyches.
King holds up pretty well considering what he has been through, but he is also confronted with haunting dreams and visions that prevent him from moving past his experiences in Iraq.
King’s fellow soldiers deal with their own demons in a variety of ways; Shriver gets drunk one night and proceeds to dig a trench in Michele’s front yard wearing nothing but his underwear, while Tommy Burgess (the superb Joseph Gordon-Levitt) likes to drink and then use his still-unopened wedding presents for target practice.
Phillippe, Tatum and Gordon-Levitt do tremendous work in their roles; they are the soul of the film, and their respective abilities to get the audience into their characters’ hearts and minds is what gives “Stop-Loss” its power.
Ultimately, the film isn’t as good as “In the Valley of Elah” – the best film yet made about the Iraq War – but “Stop-Loss” succeeds because it balances contemporary relevance with a compelling story.
Staff writer Jeff Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.