Antique Critique: Stop Loss

by Mary Hubert

I tend to hate war movies. I’m an avid pacifist, and films like American Sniper flooding the big screen make me even more frustrated with the war propaganda that has become so popular with the modern American audience. For this reason, I was wary of watching Stop Loss from the get-go.

However, after sitting through just half an hour of the film, I began to realize that this was not your typical pro-war propaganda piece. The beginning sets up the awfulness of war with startling efficiency. In just 10 minutes, I saw men get torn apart, children shot, Joseph Gordon Levitt bawling (how horrifying is that??) – and all in silence, punctuated only by war sounds and screams. The whole set up, with its disturbing realism, reeks of senselessness, of the pathetic nature of violence at the hands of 18-year-olds with guns.

In fact, the only music/stylized media at the start of the film is made by the characters; the opening scene is a camp of soldiers making music together, and the bridge between war and civilian life is created by an “In Memory Of Our Comrades” style montage filmed on a home camera with the names of fallen soldiers typed in juvenile font. This contrast between reality and sentimentality immediately deglamorizes the reality of war, and made me cringe in shock.

And this was the uplifting part of the film.

As the soldiers return home to their small Texan town for the weekend, discrepancies abound. The overenthusiastic lauding of the soldiers by their entire town, juxtaposed by their wasted disillusionment with their surroundings, the war, and their lives, creates a sense of false joy that resulted only in me feeling so very sad for these men. This only continues, as we see the continued glorification of a group of men who were permanently, utterly destroyed, to the point of social, mental, and in some cases literal death.

The main plot line – Ryan Phillipe’s character’s struggle to avoid being stop lossed for 11 more years – is only of moderate importance. It highlights the manipulation of the military and its catastrophic effect on the men it employs, so in this sense it is valuable. But what the film touches on most effectively is how each character tries – and fails – to deal with war.

The beauty of Stop Loss was not in how it demonized the process of fighting war, but in the way it demonized its aftermath for those fighting in it. From JGL drinking himself to death, to Phillipe choosing a life of fugitive rather than risk 1 – let alone 11 – more years in hell – to Channing Tatum naked in a man-hole he dug himself in his fiancée’s yard, paralyzed by PTSD and liquor, we see boys at 18, 19, 29, utterly destroyed by their time in battle.  By pairing Tatum’s decision to go career with Phillipe’s choice to run, the film effectively portrays the horrifying catch-22 that a soldier is faced with: continue a horrifying career path that gives you stability in a world where you have none, or run away, isolated for the rest of your life, in order to escape from that world of destruction.

There were some clever tidbits, like two soldiers fighting in a graveyard or twelve shots being fired at a funeral for a gunshot suicide, which rang ironically true. It was a mark of good writing, and contributed to the film’s uniqueness. The use of a montage when JGL killed himself – as if he died in war – was another indication of this, and was another example of clever direction.

However, certain moments in the film were less effective. The ease at which the protagonist gives a lawyer $1,000 and gets to go to Canada seems a bit of a Deus ex Machina, and his ultimate choice to return to the army was more uplifting than was warranted, given the portrayal of war throughout the film. Additionally, the confrontation and dialogue between the soldiers was corny and a bit artificial. As a whole, though, it was oh so refreshing to see a movie about war that wasn’t a war movie. Thanks for calling it like it is, folks.

This is not just a movie about being stop-lossed. It’s a movie about how the war fucks you and leaves you on the ground, half-dead. Props to Kimberly Peirce for creating a war story that actually makes sense.

The Bottom Line: If you’re looking for a realistic, heartwrenching – if a bit corny – antidote to American Sniper, go rent Stop Loss. You’ll leave with a newfound take on the military – and on its soldiers.

Mary Hubert is a performing artist, director, and arts administrator in the Seattle area. When not producing strange performance concoctions with her company, the Horse in Motion, she is wild about watching weird theater, whiskey, writing and weightlifting.