Stop-Loss (UK - DVD R2)
Leigh Riding salutes the latest US wartime drama on Paramount DVD
After a bloody shootout in Iraq, Sergeant Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) completes his tour of duty and returns to his hometown in Texas and is given a hero's welcome. However, Brandon feels anything but heroism. After all of the bloodshed and lost friends in Iraq, he just wants to put the war behind him, leave the army now his time is up and return to his old life. However, the army isn't finished with Brandon, and they plan another tour of duty for him.
Brandon has his own plans and goes AWOL, hitting the road with his friend Michelle (Abbie Cornish) and heads for Washington to see if a senator will override the new tour of duty.
In the current climate in America, it's a brave studio that risks money producing a movie tackling the American military. The apathy of the American public toward the current conflict is incredibly strong, and debated back and forth in countless newspapers, books, newsrooms and on picket lines. The last thing that people there want to see is a Hollywood simplification of the conflict that alienates both the left wing and the right wing audiences. In the last few years there have been many attempts to bring the conflicts to the screen, and all have failed at the box office. The Kingdom, In the Valley of Elah, Redacted, Lions for Lambs[i]... The list goes on.
Filmmakers try to sell the films from a different angle; Where a film like [i]Redacted goes for the straight war angle, Lions for Lambs tackles the subject in boardrooms and Washington offices. The Kingdom went for the same angle that the Willem Dafoe vehicle Saigon used for the Vietnam conflict, and dressed the conflict up in a police procedural 'genre' movie. Stop-Loss follows the same theme as Home of the Brave and In the Valley of Elah; the war at home.
Of all of these films, on paper Stop-Loss has the least promise. For a start the film is an MTV/Paramount co-production, it features an outrageously good looking cast, and upon its US release it came saddled with an ad campaign that was more The O.C and Varsity Blues than Rendition. The whole production looked so lightweight that it could have been blown away in a light breeze. If cinephiles were to dig a little deeper, they would have seen that on the bottom of the Gap-style poster for Stop-Loss, the director was Kimberley Piecre, revered director of Boys Don't Cry, which would have sparked interest.
There was also a glaring similarity to Home of the Brave, which was released months earlier. Anybody who has actually seen Home of the Brave (filmed in 2006 and shelved for two years) will no doubt be nervous about the similarity between the two movies, as Brave was a star studded, cliché ridden dog featuring a misty eyed Samuel L. Jackson gazing meaningfully into the distance, and Jessica Biel crying about the fact that she had trouble flipping pancakes in a saucepan for her daughter after having three fingers blown off.
It's not surprising that Stop-Loss is the better of the two films, but it is surprising that it is a fine film in it's own right. Raw and grounded from the start, Pierce moves the style of the film around with ease. Shifting from documentary style to stylised montages to a visceral action sequence through to naturalistic human drama in the first twenty-five minutes, the film somehow hangs together incredibly well, and the tone is consistent and sombre throughout. I was most impressed with the start of the film, with a very economical and interesting introduction of the main characters that says more in five minutes of montages than some other films say in twenty minutes of dialogue and exposition.
The director also acquits herself well with the main action set piece. Dirty, vicious and tense, the whole sequence is guided with confidence for a director with no track record of action cinema. Reminiscent of The Kingdom it's a bravura sequence. However, it's unlikely that Pierce will become the next Kathryn Bigelow.
Although there are a couple of Texan accents that are rather jarring, the performances are very solid throughout. Ryan Phillipe carries the film well, and is another step towards his quest for indie acceptance. Joseph Gordon Levitt is equally strong, with a darkly comic standout scene involving a can of beer, a shotgun and unwanted wedding presents. Along with Brick and The Lookout, this film marks out Levitt as a name to watch. The cast is also rounded out by small but pivotal performances from Ciaran Hinds and Tim Olyphant, lending the film a little more weight.
Stop-Loss is not perfect. Although the trip to Washington is scripted with good intentions, there is occasionally an over reliance on convenience and melodrama that takes away from the realistic kudos the script gained earlier in the film. However, the film is always put back on track when it seems threatened to be derailed, and a few plot points really come from left field, such as a meeting up with one of Brendan's war buddies that I personally found rather shocking and disturbing. The movie also gets respect for not wrapping everything up in a bow by the climax. The underlying theme that the seeds of discontent were sown with Brandon's friends and fellow soldiers before they even reached Iraq, and wartime trauma is that last little push toward what we see in the film from the main characters, is an interesting comment on what the writers think is going wrong in America.
Although Stop-Loss labours as an ambiguous military whipping boy to our American cousins (One man's anti-war film is another man's propaganda piece), it is a far easier watch with the benefit of political distance. It's safe to say that while the US will see this as an ultra-political 'message' movie that, to be fair, has far greater relevance to them than us, It's easier for the British audience to view the film with a lot more political detachment, and be seen as a simpler war-based drama, and a superb film in it's own right.
Stop-Loss is an unconventional film visually, with vivid, eye catching colours in the documentary style opening sequences, moving to desaturated action sequences, and naturalistic footage post-homecoming. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is more impressive for what it doesn’t do, rather than what it does. Despite the variance in film stock and colour, no one style looks any worse than the other. The documentary sequences look superb, the action sequence is pin sharp, and night time sequences show no sign of unintentional grain. For a drama, this is given a top drawer, well balanced transfer.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is equally impressive for a disc to a film you assume Paramount wouldn't put too much production effort into. The track delivers strong dialogue from the centre; a deep, kicking bass, with some superb explosions to rock your sofa; and great work from the rears. The most impressive sequence is obviously the shootout, and the use of the five surrounds quite simply rock. Score and songs are really well balanced in the mix, and the film feels 'big'. It might seem odd to compare the track with Cloverfield, but both films share the same contrivance of delivering 5.1 sound from a camcorder in certain Iraq sequences. Much like that film Stop-Loss uses the concept to it's advantage, and strangely draws you into those sequences more. Who knew this would be a new demo disc for my home cinema setup?
You're not getting a gag reel in with these features, that's for sure. First up is an audio commentary with writer/director Kimberly Peirce and co-writer Mark Richard, who are lively and informative and give lots of information on the genesis of the project, based on actual camcorder footage from troops. ‘The Making of Stop-Loss’, runs a good twenty minutes and features quite a lot about the origins of the story, but is essentially a standard talking heads feature. ‘A Day in Boot Camp’, runs for roughly ten minutes and features the cast learning about the ins and outs of soldiering, and is a pretty standard feature for military films these days. Finally there are eleven deleted scenes with optional director's commentary.
Stop-Loss is a far stronger film than it's very poor box office might suggest. Stylistically ambitious, commendably raw and mostly convincing, this is destined to be one of those 'lost' movies that won't disappoint when it's discovered. Neither overtly pro-military nor anti-war, the film straddles an ambiguous middle ground that intrigues. Given an impressive DVD set by Paramount, it's far more likely to find an audience in the UK, and is surprisingly and highly recommended.
Review by Leigh Riding
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 18th August 2008
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Subtitles: English, English HoH
Extras: Commentary with Director Kimberly Peirce and Co-Writer Mark Richard, The Making of STOP-LOSS, A Day in Boot Camp, Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary by Kimberly Peirce
Easter Egg: No
Director: Kimberly Pierce
Cast: Ryan Phillipe, Abbie Cornish, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Timothy Olyphant, Ciaran Hinds
Length: 107 minutes
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