Director Kimberly Peirce reveals soldiers’ hidden mental and emotional pains in ‘Stop-Loss’

TCM will feature films from 12 decades— representing 44 countries—totaling 100 classic and current titles all created by women. Read more about this here! 

In 2008, Kimberly Peirce directed and co-wrote Stop-Loss—a film that voices the pain hidden within the soldiers that fight the wars for America in Iraq. Ryan Phillippe, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gorden-Levitt, and Abbie Cornish star in this war story based on reality. (KIZJ: 3/5)

Review by FF2 Contributing Editor Katusha Jin

The film opens with a home-video style of filming with a team of soldiers sitting at their camp in Tekrid, Iraq. They are singing along to a song played by “Tommy Burgess” (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) on his guitar. This scene swiftly transitions into the present where it’s dry and dusty, and the same American soldiers are now fully dressed in camouflage protective gear with helmets, goggles, and guns. “Steve Shriver” (Channing Tatum), one of the sergeants, observes the search of a car trunk carefully before letting the car through. Even though there are occasional gunshot sounds around him, he can’t help but take his camera out and show his fellow soldier “Rico Rodriguez” (Victor Rasuk) the picture of his fiancée “Michele” (Abbie Cornish), from back home in Texas.

Suddenly another car drives towards them without any signs of slowing down. As it swerves, people from inside the car start shooting out the window. The squad hops into a vehicle and chases the dangerous car with the squad leader, Sergeant “Brandon King” (Ryan Phillippe), in the front seat. Shooting at them doesn’t seem possible because there are too many civilians in the way. The roads narrow, and eventually, the men get out of the car and take to their search on foot. They’ve been ambushed. Gunshots are flying around everywhere, the men are injured severely, and some—killed. The squad returns to Texas shaken but relieved to be home finally. The story’s real development begins when Sergeant King is stop-lossed—when a soldier’s active duty is extended involuntarily—and called back for another tour of duty. 

Director Peirce graduated from the University of Chicago, majoring in English and Japanese Literature. By that time, she had already worked as a photographer and English teacher in Japan, and as a photography intern to Alfred Eisenstaedt at Time magazine. It was after this that she pursued an MFA in film at Columbia University. The faculty nominated her thesis film for a Princess Grace Award, and producer Christine Vachon became interested in developing Perice’s idea into a feature film. When her debut feature film Boys Don’t Cry was released in 1999, it became very popular amongst critics, swept awards across festivals, and achieved a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Chloë Sevigny at the Academy Awards.

Stop-Loss was Peirce’s second feature film. It was inspired by stories she’d heard from her brother and other American soldiers who fought in Iraq. The script itself came from interviews she did with soldiers across the country, and the story came from an honest and well-intentioned place. The beginning of the film promises a lot, but something is lacking in the middle section. It meanders in an odd situation where the squad’s leader, Sergeant King, goes AWOL with his friend’s fiancée, Michelle. The two of them drive around between Texas, Washington DC, and New York, take tequila shots, and try to figure out a way for King to avoid going back on tour. Steve, on the other hand, was so convinced about coming back to marry Michelle, but then ends up flippantly changing his priorities.

The setup for Sergeant Brandon King, the central character, is very emotionally compelling. For a soldier to be refused discharge and forced into a situation where they must accept another tour is mentally traumatizing. Especially for a hero like Kind who has been rewarded with a Purple Heart and Bronze Star as proof of how much he has given for his country. Thinking that you’re done with war only to be sent back can be compared to being sent to death row, which is why King decides to run away and go AWOL.

Stop-Loss is a good effort to tell an extremely difficult story with great performances, but each character’s development and motivations should have been explored further. There are a lot of emotional and dramatic moments in this film thrown around. Although the topic of war indeed calls for an emotional rendering, it’s difficult for a viewer to continually feel that same level of emotional intensity throughout the film—we end up feeling numb towards the commotion happening on the screen and, as a result, trust the story less.

© Katusha Jin (10/16/2020) FF2 Media

Featured Photo: Ryan Phillippe and Channing Tatum

Middle Photo: Ryan Phillippe and Abbie Cornish

Bottom Photo: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Photo Credits: Warner Home Video (2014) (USA) 

Q: Does Stop-Loss pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test? 

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to remember a scene where two women are talking together at all considering how it’s a film about a group of male soldiers. The only part I remember with two women talking to each other was when “Michele” (Abbie Cornish) talked to another woman about a family member getting stop-lossed.

Tags: FF2 Media, Kimberly Peirce, Stop-Loss, TCM, Turner Classic Movies, Women Make Film, WomenMakeFilm

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Katusha Jin
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As part of the FF2 Media team, Katusha Jin interviews filmmakers, write features and reviews, and coaches other associates. She grew up in the UK and studied briefly in Russia and China before moving to New York for college. Graduating magna cum laude from New York University, Katusha majored in Film and Television at Tisch School of the Arts with minors in Business and Philosophy. She has worked as a producer, director, writer, and composer for various award-winning projects including short films, branded content, independent features, and music videos.
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