Seen at Clearview's Chelsea Cinema, Auditorium #4, Saturday afternoon March 29, 2008. 3.5 Slithy Toads.
This is the best movie of the year so far.
Unfortunately, it has been difficult to read a review, good or bad, that reviews the movie on its own terms, divorced from its place in history following a string of (generally inferior) movies dealing with the Iraq war that have been box office disappointments.
And also unfortunately, it seems to arrive at the moment when many critics have decided to drop grading these Iraq movies on a curve, giving plentiful extra points for worthy intentions, or even just for the bare bones of the subject matter, to things like In The Valley of Elah, which certainly had its share of negative reviews but also quite inexplicably managed to appear on many Top 10 lists.
It's a double whammy, in which this really good movie is being victimized on multiple levels by the Critical Consensus, getting worse reviews than it deserves to compensate for films that got better, and reviewed in such a way that audiences are given permission in advance for skipping it because it is now to be expected that they should.
In case you're not familiar with the term or haven't read another review of this movie, or seen a coming attraction. "stop loss" is the name given to a provision in US military enlistment agreements that allows the military to hold a soldier past the contractual end date of the enlistment. And in a nutshell, Stop Loss the movie is the story of an Army sergeant who returns home to Texas as a hero, goes ballistic at finding himself stop-lossed, goes AWOL, goes on a road trip, and leaves a friend and fellow GI to deal with some of the mess of post-conflict adjustments that the unit is dealing with.
In big ways and small, the movie reminds of other war movies. The lines in the title lettering are reminiscent of the titling used for the TV series M.A.S.H. I was reminded on many levels of the excellent film Born on the 4th of July, which to my puzzlement I haven't seen referenced in other reviews I've read of Stop-Loss. The welcoming parade for the troops has the same sensibility as the 4th of July parades in the Oliver Stone movie, complete with a John Lewis trumpet solo in the score that hearkens back to the masterful John Williams score for 4th of July. The whole tone of the movie is as if Ron Kovac's parents had gotten the happy return of their son that never was theirs, only to find it twisted into a nightmare of an entirely different sort. I hope Stop Loss will have a better long-term fate than 4th of July, which hasn't entered the mainstream movie consciousness as it should.
Sgt. King is played by Ryan Phillippe, an actor whom I've long admired beginning especially with Cruel Intentions (which wasn't the first movie of his I'd seen, but certainly the first to make an impression). His performance is a knock-out. He adjusts smoothly to every line in a delicately wrinkled role that has to take him from the very definition of the guy you want at your side to somebody far more complex as he meets his limits at the stop-loss and then tries to find just where his new boundaries lie when removed of every anchor, every mooring, he thought was his. Channing Tatum as King's bud Sgt. Shriver keeps up with Phillippe in every scene they share, and no more need be said in praise of his performance. The other stand-out was Victor Rasuk, a member of King's unit who is badly wounded. He's come into his own since the interesting if not entirely good indiepic Raising Victor Vargas. Ever since Witness, I've always been happy to see Josef Sommer in pretty much anything. But the best movie of the year so far doesn't get my top 4 Slithy Toad ranking in part because of some of the weaker links. What is Ciarin Hinds doing, cast as Ryan Phillippe's father? Joseph Gordon-Levitt was very good in The Lookout, but here I think he's been a tad overpraised and doesn't do much with a role that is admittedly less well written than those for Phillippe and Tatum. In his scenes with either, I found he was just a little off their excellence. And Timothy Olyphant as the CO for King and Shriver struck me as a constant off note.
On the big questions of story and direction, I was with the movie pretty much every step of the way where a lot of other critics have been quibbling. The opening scenes in Tikrit, Iraq are one of the best war sequences I've seen. I was a little bit bothered by just how beautiful every soldier in the squad was, but it is an MTV Films movie, so what should I expect. But this scene had some shades of Full Metal Jacket, it was more realistic than the overblown and similar finale in The Kingdom, and I felt it worked. When we get to Texas, King is deftly sketched as every bit the company man who does his job thoroughly and well and to the admiration of all, which is exactly why his decision to go AWOL worked for me. It takes a lot of energy to fill that role, to be that employee, to be the go-to guy, and most of us don't have that to give in unlimited quantity. It worked for me on every level when he snapped, when he looked at what he'd done, and what he was expecting to do, and what he was now going to be doing instead, and decided he was empty, had nothing to give, and wasn't going to give what he did not have. As I said, Phillippe gives an amazing performance. Some have criticized the road movie aspect. Huh? He stops to visit the parents of one of the soldiers killed in Tikrit. Tom Cruise did that in Born on the 4th of July. It's one of the things you do. He goes to visit a soldier who was badly injured in Tikrit. Even after he's gone AWOL, he somehow can't leave the job he's abandoned, and that contradiction works. With everything we've seen sequentially, the ending can't be anything else, anything other, than exactly what it is. Emotionally, I didn't like the ending. I wish it could have been something else. Except it couldn't have been. The character we saw in the post-return scenes in Texas, the character we saw visiting the parents or his injured comrade, there are places this person can't go.
There's one scene in the movie that I didn't like at all, which is so blatantly there to announce the imminent arrival of a bad thing which we so blatantly and artificially don't see on screen that there's no surprise at all when The Call comes to tell Sgt. King that which the experienced film viewer has already deduced. But that bad scene leads into a climactic scene between the King and Shriver characters that works on every level and held me rapt. So I'll forgive the one bad.
This is the second movie directed by Kimberly Peirce, who also co-wrote with Mark Richard, after the excellent Boys Don't Cry, which won an Oscar for Hilary Swank. It's way too early in the year to say Ryan Phillippe should be nominated for this, but not too early to say that Peirce has directed another excellent film with another excellent lead performance that deserves to be seen.
- The Brillig Blogger
- A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.