Monday, April 07, 2008

"Stop-Loss" meanders through the quagmire


directed by Kimberly Peirce
starring Ryan Philippe, Channing Tatum, Abbie Cornish, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Ciaran Hinds in yet another throw-away bit part

Ostensibly a war movie, “Stop-Loss” is really, at its heart, a troubled youth movie. Stripped down to the essentials, it's the story of a group of boy-men who lose their bearings, morally and psychologically, and wander in a fog seeking to reestablish them. In attempting to trace their restless, ultimately futile quest, the film unfortunately loses its bearings as well. In the end, it’s less effective as a narrative than a portait of displaced souls.

War is, of course, the trigger behind that displacement, and “Stop-Loss” begins well with what looks like grainy home video footage of the principal characters – all young soldiers in Iraq – relaxing in their off-duty hours before shifting to a bloody standoff in Tikrit that kills some and leaves the rest scarred, both literally and figuratively. Their leader, Sergeant Brandon King (Ryan Philippe), seems the most self-composed of the group afterwards, but the events that unfold suggest otherwise.

Cut to the return of Brandon, best friend Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), and their pal Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to their Texas hometown, where they’re given a full-on hero’s welcome. It’s all over, or should be. But there are early warning signs, even before the initial euphoria has faded—spasms of violence, frenzied delusions that aren’t completely alcohol-derived—that the war hasn’t loosened its grip on them. Apart from a rambling public speech at their homecoming parade, Brandon at first seems to be the only one holding it together—until he's notified that he’s been stop-lossed (i.e., compelled to extend his service) for another tour in Iraq. In a matter of minutes he goes from incredulous to awol, rapidly decamping with no clear goal other than to avoid what he knows just ain’t right. Eventually, he formulates a plan to drive to Washington, D.C., in the vague hope that he can convince his state senator to intercede on his behalf. For reasons that are never made clear, Steve’s fiancée, Michelle (Abbie Cornish), agrees to drive him.

Because Brandon’s plan seems so half-assed and ill-conceived, and because “Stop-Loss” at this point turns into an unlikely road trip movie, it inevitably begins to lose momentum. An aimless, almost desultory feel sets in, which isn’t helped by several “false” endings that bring to mind, weirdly, “The Return of the King” (only there at least I knew to expect them since I’d read the book). There are, however, gripping, if somewhat obvious moments along the way – as when Brandon, confronted with some street thugs, hallucinates that he is back in combat – and some deeply poignant ones. Perhaps the best of the latter is Brandon’s visit to one of his fellow soldiers, Rico Rodriguez (a very good Victor Rasuk), in a veterans’ rehab hospital. Rico, who was blinded and badly maimed in the Tikrit, appears not to have lost any of his cheery, cheeky spirit. That is, until Brandon moves to leave and the camera lingers for a beat on Rico’s scarred face. The expression that remains will haunt you for days.

Director Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry”) isn’t shy about probing into the inner pain of her characters, though she also preserves a respectful distance from them that gives the film an unexpectedly restrained, almost muted tone. The actors follow her lead by studiously avoiding anything that smacks of melodrama. Philippe and Tatum are solidly believable, if a bit too pretty, as men whose sense of moral order has been completely upended, and Philippe further manages to convey the innermost doubts that beset Brandon about his own conduct, both past and present, as a soldier. Gordon-Levitt, however, delivers the most nuanced performance as Tommy, who of the three friends seems the angriest and the most disoriented from the return to civilian life. Among the other supporting characters, Cornish acquits herself well as the long-suffering but surprisingly tough-minded woman who’s stood perhaps a shade too long by her man, while the magnificent Ciarán Hinds, for the second time this year (first time was in “There Will Be Blood”), is utterly squandered as Brandon’s perplexed and grieving father.

Still, for the most part it’s a strong and well-utilized cast, though one that’s hampered by the fitfulness of the narrative pacing and the lack of imagination in some of the writing. With a little tightening and more judicious editing, “Stop-Loss” could have been an indisputably good, if not great, film; as it is, it’s only intermittently effective. That said, there’s no denying it’s heartfelt, and its sincerity shines through its flaws.



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