Eugene Weekly : Movies : 4.3.08


For three young soldiers, things fall apart

STOP-LOSS: Directed by Kimberly Peirce. Written by Peirce and Mark Richard. Cinematography, Chris Menges. Music, John Powell. Starring Ryan Phillippe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Abbie Cornish and Timothy Olyphant. Paramount Pictures, 2008. R. 113 minutes.

Brandon (Ryan Phillippe) and Steve (Channing Tatum) in Stop-Loss

Few films haunt me like Boys Don’t Cry, Kimberly Peirce’s dramatization of the Brandon Teena story. Biologically female, Teena adopted a male identity, enjoying a brief period of happiness in rural Nebraska before his transgender secret cost him his life. Nine years later, Boys Don’t Cry still resonates for how skillfully, how empathetically, it presents Teena’s story. Peirce achieves what Pauline Kael calls “realism with the terror of actual experience,” but the film, while savage, is also tender and wistful. It is a portrait of attempted assimilation, but of assimilation under the most unusual circumstances, the costs of which Peirce also explores in Stop-Loss, her first film since Boys Don’t Cry. Stop-Loss examines our greatest engine of assimilation — the military — and one man’s attempt to return to civilian life when the military says he can’t.

Part of the disappointment of Stop-Loss is how, after a hiatus reminiscent of novelist Donna Tartt’s, Peirce’s absence seems to have dulled her gifts, or at least increased her willingness to compromise. Stop-Loss fatally resembles music videos — it was produced by MTV Films, which gave us Murderball but also Blades of Glory — which, by over-emphasizing the virility of young men, inevitably reduce them to caricature. For the decorated soldiers in Stop-Loss, that virility has no place to go outside of combat, which sets up the central paradox of the film: the moment they arrive back in Texas, pals Brandon (Ryan Phillippe), Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) feel less at ease than they did in Iraq. By the end of their first night home, Steve and Tommy have been thrown to the curb by their women, leaving Brandon, as well as the rest of us, wondering how things turned so ugly so soon.

Brandon, their former platoon leader, comes valiantly to the rescue, impressing upon Steve and Tommy the need to enjoy their freedom responsibly. That freedom turns out to be short-lived. Within days, Brandon is selected to return to Iraq under the stop-loss order signed by the president. Brandon’s refusal is the pivotal moment of the film: For a decorated war hero to reject the assignment is tantamount to suicide. But what Brandon stands for in Stop-Loss isn’t clear until very late, when he says he’s “tired of the killing.” Persuasive, but interesting when you consider that early on, he challenges stop-loss as a legal issue and then, after that, as an issue of his getting killed. I began to wonder if Brandon had an undisclosed head wound. But don’t fault Phillippe, who obviously takes his craft seriously, giving a sincere performance, if one that doesn’t access anything new. For now, Phillippe seems better suited to films like Breach, which also required a measure of self-examination but had an able Chris Cooper on hand to lead the way.

The balance of Stop-Loss involves Brandon being driven by his old friend Michelle to Washington, D.C., where he hopes to meet with a senator. Abbie Cornish, in sun-kissed Drew Barrymore mode, plays Michelle with a quiet Texas twang, but she’s given far less to do here than in Candy (2006), where she shines opposite Heath Ledger. If Cornish looks bored for most of the film, you can’t blame her: Stop-Loss is a lot of great-looking faces sorting through a mess that’s been simplified to ensure that nothing, God forbid, is left to the imagination. There’s very little pleasure in it, but very little convincing pain, either.

Stop-Loss is now playing at Cinemark and VRC Stadium 15.