Saturday, March 29, 2008

Stop-Loss: Good ol' boys gone bad, courtesy of the red, white and blue

Whisking us from a nail-biting ambush in a Tikrit alleyway to drunken punch-ups deep in the heart of Texas, the first act of Stop-Loss wisely sets a tone of visceral urgency right off the top. For all its emphasis on matters of immediate political import, this is not a film that benefits whatsoever from slowing things down or getting too contemplative. Often awkward in its storytelling yet commendably sincere and suitably messy, Stop-Loss packs a solid emotional whollop even while it dances around an issue at once timely and, perhaps as a result, irresolvable.

A group of pals, first seen singing Toby Keith’s moronically patriotic country anthem in lumbering unison, return home from a tour in Iraq, the whole lot of them destined for a wicked blanket diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. Their façade of ass-kicking bravado swiftly slips away to reveal a grotesque grimace of fear and guilt. Their superior actually needs to command them not to beat their wives and kids while on leave –for all the good it does. These good ol’ boys gone bad waste no time going ballistic, ending their celebratory return home by busting up the living room and using the wedding presents given to an already destroyed couple for pissed-up target practice out on the ranch.

Immediately after being awarded a purple heart at the end of what was to be his second and final tour, Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) is unexpectedly ordered to return for a third go-round, bound by a legal loophole referred to as a stop-loss, which allows the US military to send soldiers back in a time of war. King points out that the President already publicly stated that the Iraq War is over, but his insurgent reasoning does him no favours when dealing with shouting jarheads all to aware that the numbers of volunteer enlistees are way, way down. Sent to the stockade to think things over, King soon goes AWOL, hitting the road with his best friend’s girl (Abbie Cornish, superb, an din her quiet way the heart of the movie) in the hope of finding a friendly authority figure who can help him wriggle out of going beyond the call of duty.

Stop-Loss is the fist feature to be directed by Kimberly Pierce since Boys Don’t Cry, her lauded debut from nine years back. Stop-Loss shares its predecessor’s deft handling of regional folk –she neither sentimentalizes or takes pot shots at small town Texans– but its script isn’t nearly as focused. Written by Pierce and Mark Richard, the film fumbles with corny flashbacks, boilerplate dialogue and too many overwrought scenes where the characters, otherwise defined by their inability to articulate their inner turmoil, announce the themes to us rather than evoke them. Yet somehow, these deficiencies never entirely get in the way of the film’s integrity or vigour. There isn’t enough artistry, poetry or perspective here to make this The Deer Hunter for our era, but there is a huge commitment to conveying the raw, fresh wreckage of lives fucked-up by senseless violence, and that’ll do just fine before one comes along.

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