The fate of films dealing with the war in Iraq has tended to be fairly similar during the past few years – most of them end up falling victim to audience indifference and apathy, unfavorable reviews, widespread criticism and overall dismissal. That being said, “Boys Don’t Cry” director Kimberly Peirce’s new film “Stop-Loss” seems poised to break that cycle, even going so far as to secure wide release courtesy of the media magnates behind MTV.
Financial success aside, the film has good intentions, which come through clearly throughout. However, despite its efforts at achieving emotional poignancy, “Stop-Loss” does suffer from a variety of problems – the most pressing of which are its continuity issues and its proliferation of problematic plot holes.
The movie’s opening sequence throws the audience right into the fierce, riveting action of battle, as a team of soldiers gets entangled in an ambush in a residential section of Tikrit. Arguably the most intense, harrowing and affecting scene in the movie, what follows afterward feels slightly disappointing, as the rest of the film fails to live up to the same intensity and effectiveness of its first scene.
Part of the problem is the fact that the plot then follows Sgt. Brandon King, played by a diligent Ryan Phillippe, as he tries to avoid going back to Iraq after being “stop-lossed.” As anyone who reads the news knows, stop-loss orders force enlisted personnel to involuntarily extend their service, even after the initial term of their contract has been completed.
Throughout the film, King adamantly refuses to reenlist, and he even embarks on a journey to Washington D.C. to seek help from his senator. This proves nearly impossible, as he is met with obstacle after obstacle along the ride, and eventually realizes that he doesn’t have much say in the matter. Ultimately, it becomes clear that he won’t be able to lead a normal life as a soldier on the run, and the remainder of the film focuses on King as he copes with this reality – albeit via a variety of moments whose slow pace and lack of a coherent, climactic narrative structure leave them feeling less resonant than they could. The story ends up dragging on slowly, as there ends up being very little plot to sustain the overwhelming feelings of anxiety and unrest its visual elements engender.
Regardless of its more problematic aspects, “Stop-Loss” is an interesting film, exploring themes ranging from post-traumatic stress and ethical military policies to the disillusionment that results from war.
Perhaps this is what hurts “Stop-Loss” in the end, as it is a wildly ambitious film that tries to do too much without producing any cohesive, fulfilling whole. Though it occasionally falls into certain clichés and doesn’t know what to do with all of its sprawling material, it entertains throughout. But, that leaves audiences feeling as though something fundamental were missing in the movie.
Ultimately, though, “Stop-Loss” does feature several forceful performances, particularly those by Philippe and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and it manages to put forth a refreshingly provocative piece of filmmaking about the war in Iraq. And more importantly, it is a movie about the military’s policies and presence in Iraq that could actually generate enough box office buzz to be in theaters for more than a mere week or two.