Thursday, 19 November 2009


The term 'stop-loss' in the American military refers to fine print a serviceman's (or servicewoman's) contract allowing for them to be recalled past their discharge date, involuntarily, should they be required by the military. It is this clause, and the repercussions on three Iraq war veterans (Iraq War the Second, Jr's war, not Snr's) and one girlfriend that form the titular premise of this film.

There's something about war movies directed by women. Not that there are many. Or, really, any. The shamefully unseen by me The Hurt Locker is really the only other one I can come up with off the top of my head, and that is, by all accounts, exceptional.

Kimberley Peirce's film (her first since her Oscar-winning debut, 1999's Boys Don't Cry) doesn't really tackle war, however. There are scenes in Iraq, both battle scenes (which are very accomplished) and behind-the-scenes scenes (wow, that's an awkward phrase) of the boys playing around, sending letters home, all that jazz. And they all look great. The primary thrust of the film, however, is dealing with this stop-loss notion.

The cast is fairly exceptional. Ryan Phillippe plays the Staff Sergeant who is stop-lossed (stop-lost?), Brandon King, with Channing Tatum (the weakest link, I think) playing his best friend Sergeant Steve Shriver. My future husband and the incredible Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Private Tommy Burgess, and our dear friend Abbie Cornish plays Shriver's girlfriend Michelle - King and Michelle have known each other pretty much their entire lives.

All three servicemen are on leave and partying hard. Shriver freaks and starts digging bunkers in his front yard when drunk, Burgess gets kicked out by his new wife... the only one who seems to have it together is King. They go out to the ranch, they shoot things up. King is meant to be being discharged, but when he goes to sign it all out he is told to report back later that month. He disobeys the direct order (yelling 'with all due respect, fuck the president', something I'm sure we all wanted to say back in 2007) and is arrested, only to escape and go on the run, with Michelle agreeing to drive him out of Texas.

What follows are attempts to bring him back, explorations of what options he has (there are none, apparently), and tragedy striking. The notion that you can sign up to serve for a certain number of years, do your time amid the horrors and trauma of war, want to get out and then be called back against your will is terrifying, and the cast pull it off for the most part. Ryan Phillippe has been proving himself to have chops of late, and after my Bright Star review regarding Abbie Cornish, this is probably my favourite role of hers so far - I believed her entirely. Joseph Gordon-Levitt can do absolutely no wrong in my eyes, but I don't think anyone would say his performance was anything but grand. Channing Tatum, though, can't hold his own against this cast with so much talent behind them. He's not terrible, but you do notice that he is weaker.

Peirce explores this injustice with anger. It shows that this law pisses her off. She doesn't like it, and she's wearing that quite apparently on her sleeve, and maybe that's why the film wasn't particularly successful. I think it's a terrible clause, and i think more people should know about it, and I congratulate her for taking up this cause. Iraq films haven't been working in the States commercially anyway, so you may as well ram your point home.

I'm glad I finally watched Stop-Loss. I've been meaning to for a while, and missed it last year at the Sydney Film Festival where it played in their inaugural competition. It's a bold piece of filmmaking, and here's hoping that Peirce doesn't have to wait the better part of another decade to let us know what's pissing her off now. 4 stars.

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