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Finding Emo: A Review of Stop-Loss

It’s become popular to make fun of Hayden Christensen. And why not? He killed Anakin Skywalker. With brow furrowed in angst and lightsaber blazing as blue as his poster-blue eyes, he destroyed the Anakin we once knew and replaced him with Darth Emo.

For those of you unfamiliar with his performances in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, I will summarize some notable comments by critics:

“Christensen plays Anakin as if he were a brooding, whining brat forever on the verge of a teary-eyed tantrum.” —Christopher Smith,

“Anakin, as embodied by Christensen, is the kind of needlessly moody kid you might see getting punched out in a Dairy Queen parking lot.” —Paul Tatara,

“Part of the problem is Christensen, whose breakout role was playing the young Anakin Skywalker in the recent execrable ‘Star Wars’ installments, and who has never managed to project anything but a sullen air of lazy entitlement.” —Ann Hornaday, Washington Post

Before I talk about Stop-Loss, I have to talk just a bit about Hayden Christensen. First of all, let me be fair. The problem with Star Wars was the lack of directing and writing talent, not the lack of acting talent—poor Hayden wasn’t the only one George Lucas humiliated onscreen. Nevertheless, for some reason Hayden continued his misunderstood writhing in other films, like Jumper, which was best described by Andrew Pulver of the Guardian as being a series of “tortured love scenes for Hayden to glower through.” You know how Michael Jackson is the guy who started everyone moonwalking? How Marlon Brando is the guy who introduced believable performances into film? Well, Hayden Christensen is the guy who brought emo to Hollywood.

It may well be that you can’t fully understand Stop-Loss until you understand this. It may be different for you, but for my own part, if it hadn’t been for Hayden, I might not have seen why Stop-Loss was such a terrible movie. I would have hated it without the important step of knowing why. Fortunately, I do know why, and I’m gonna tell you.

MTV’s The Reel World

Stop-Loss PosterI ought to have known better than to pay for a war movie produced by MTV. I had a bad feeling about it the moment I saw the poster, which makes it look like a show on the CW. They may as well have called it “One Tikrit Hill.” It had the right components: young adults with intertwined lives, self-absorbed, deeply affected, desperate for connection but always in self-imposed isolation, always overwhelmed by the drama of by what’s happening to them. Every character is in a world of their own. They destroy themselves, destroy others, regret it, try to make amends, fail, and fall even further apart—all of which could be cured instantly by giving a shit about someone other than themselves. In other words, it was MTV reality television, except with real actors instead of aspiring ones.

Should I tell you what’s wrong with this movie? Scowling is not a form of communication. The only place you’ll see more passionately red-faced grimaces is at a proctologist’s office. The film is one scene after another of troubled, urgent men speaking with clenched faces to other troubled, urgent men, with the occasional troubled, urgent chick substituted for variety. They should have cast some belligerent street imams to bring some calm to the proceedings.

These are not complicated or interesting lives; these are people who only have problems. I don’t enjoy movies whose plots consist primarily of characters inflicting others with their pain. It happened in Closer, it happened in Rent, it even happened in Shoot ‘Em Up (which at least had the virtue of not being serious about it). Even if you put my personal preferences aside, however, you’re left with a superficial and one-sided view of a very complicated war and the people who are fighting it.

The political message could not have possibly been more obvious. I found the screenwriters as insulting as the actors. In one of the sillier scenes, which could have been superb if it hadn’t been so blatantly written and acted, Ryan Phillipe (with a clenched face, of course) cries, “Fuck Bush!” You see, when you don’t trust the audience to correctly fill in the blanks, it’s best not to leave any.

We all knew going in this would be an anti-war movie, but really now. The job of a talented artist is to obscure his message so only by an act of insight does the audience penetrate it. Only by challenging us does the artist create the possibility of reward. Writing “War Sucks” on a canvas is not art, it’s a picket sign.

Acting Troop

The job of a talented artist is to obscure his message so only by an act of insight does the audience penetrate it. Only by challenging us does the artist create the possibility of reward.

Within the first fifteen minutes, we had been told the message of the movie. After that came and hour and a half of emotional self-indulgence. The beginning was taut—a squad on sentry duty in Iraq, then drawn into an ambush, revealing both the dreary and the dramatic in the soldier’s work. It was objective and unsparing, to its credit. Despite those commendable traits, I still couldn’t fully invest in the combat scenes, because it was so nonsensical that any trained American soldiers would have fallen for such a stupidly obvious ambush in the first place. If you watch the movie, you’ll see what I mean. For the complete fuckerclust the sergeant willingly walks them into—without a word of protest from the squad!—he should have gotten a demotion, not a bronze star.

When the squad returns home, they fall into a mess of dissolution and drinking which is a superficial trivialization of the troubles of soldiers, whether they have PTSD or not. It’s not just the kids acting like emotional toddlers; the authority figures are no less shallow and worthless. Ryan Phillipe’s father just glowers weightily, psychically projecting modern existential angst, and does nothing to guide his idiotic son. They should have just put him in an “I’m a Pussy” tshirt and cut his lines. His mom stands around with tears in her eyes—without the benefit of any useful dialogue or believable connection to her child—embodying the whole town’s torment over what the war has “really” done to Texas underneath the skin of patriotism. Deep!

Basically, people just stand about being deep. But how can they, when the two young men on Army leave say things to each other like—and I am not making this up, one guy actually said this to his buddy with furrowed brows after a tussle—”I don’t even know you anymore!” You see what I mean about this being a show on the CW network? At one point, these same two guys stand in a parking lot after an intense fight consisting of grimaces, tilted heads, and held-back simmering emo tension, and go their separate ways after years of friendship. As his buddy walks away, Ryan Phillipe says his name—picture this now!—and then his buddy stops and turns back ever so slightly in the half-darkness…. and then Ryan says, after a sweaty pause, complete with a tiny little chin lift, “Watch your six.”

Yep. He really said that.

He goes to visit his buddy Rodriguez in what is, due to the paradoxically cheery performance of Victor Rasuk, the only nearly authentic moment in the film. This is the only place where the truth is portrayed as being as complicated as it really is. The soldier loses his limbs and eyesight in the service of his country, and is resilient and grateful for life, joyful to be in the company of his friend. The underlying sadness of his condition, the futility of the cause he sacrificed for, the deception that brought him there, are all nuances it us up to us to penetrate and provide. The challenge of resolving these juxtapositions creates the reward.

Even then, there are glitches. “Haji has new bombs that you don’t even want to survive,” Rodriguez tells his buddy, reflecting on how he wouldn’t want to go back now. That’s just silly. It’s the screenwriter trying to sound like she “gets” war. No, haji doesn’t have “new bombs,” first of all, and second of all a recovering soldier who has had the time to reconcile his life to his injuries wouldn’t suggest such a thing about survival.

The whole movie is a ham-handed, superficial trumpeting of “the torment of war” which is too cloying and obvious to actually communicate it. Let’s be charitable and set aside the predictability—we knew Tommy was going to die or end up in jail, we knew Ryan would return to his unit, we knew he and the chick would fall into uncomfortable love, we knew there’d be more and more scowling and grimacing and clenched emo anti-war angst. What you’re left with is a waste of good talent, and of a valid message.

Wars on Film

I compare it to In the Valley of Elah, among whose very few ticket-buyers I am proud to count myself. Elah was as deep a probe of the effects of this war as will ever be seen on film. It makes no effort to proclaim its message, and in fact buries it beneath layers of gripping story. Our journey alongside Tommy Lee Jones, staunch defender of the American military ideal, proud and grieving father, leads us to realizations about war which are as profound and disturbing to us as they are to him, because neither we nor he dared all along to believe them. I compare this movie to Jarhead, which dives deeply into the disturbing repercussions of a troubling conflict in Iraq—a conflict that Stop-Loss mocks by stretching a thin sheen of commentary over a hollow war-shaped racket of sticks.

In the VA hospital, Rodriguez dons a realistic-looking prosthetic arm with a hand that opens and closes, and I thought it was the perfect metaphor for the movie. The skin was the right color, but obviously fake. The movement of the hand, while smooth, was somehow robotic and unnatural. A moving, living war film had been removed and we were left with merely a prosthesis. Somewhere along the line, someone probably had an idea for a genuine war film, one with muscle and blood and a human heart beating hard underneath it all. Then, somewhere a little further along, the screenwriters and director scooped all the guts out and replaced them with metal and motors.

Which brings us back to Darth Vader. Stop-Loss is an entire movie full of Hayden Christensens, stomping and growling and tensing up and tilting their heads and jutting their jaws out indignantly. I don’t blame the performers; there was nothing else for the poor actors to do. If there’s nothing worthwhile to find, they’re gonna find emo.

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