On the surface, Kimberly Peirce’s Stop-Loss doesn’t bear much resemblance to her momentous debut, Boys Don’t Cry, the story of a young woman (Hilary Swank) who pretended—joyfully—to be a good ol’ boy and got raped and murdered when her dumbfounded drinking buddies couldn’t process their little chum’s new identity. But something ties the two films together. For a Feminist Studies type, Peirce has an uncanny knack for getting inside the heads of young men, for making you feel how powerfully their identities are bound up in their masculine relationships and rituals. Stop-Loss doesn’t come together, but in its ungainly way it evokes the anguish of American shit-kickers who’ve lost all sense of autonomy.
The movie centers on three Texas soldiers (Ryan Phillippe, Channing Tatum, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who return from Iraq after an ambush that left some of their friends dead and maimed and another barely suppressing his inadvertent killing of civilians. That battle is the opening sequence, and Peirce makes you understand on a gut level the adrenaline-fueled hyperawareness of these men at a checkpoint, as they almost fire on a car with a family speeding toward them, then the unreality of the moment when insurgents in another speeding car open fire on them. When it’s all over and the Americans roll into Texas on a bus, ready to be discharged, you get a palpable sense of how wound up they are—itching to get drunk and laid and court oblivion. They barely make it through the parade and speech of a U.S. senator before they’re throwing back shots and retching and punching people out and having the requisite war flashbacks.
The film’s title refers to the presidential prerogative of extending a service member’s enlistment contract beyond its expiration date in times of war—a “backdoor draft” that, according to the movie’s postscript, has kept 81,000 Americans and counting in uniform. The most stable of the three protagonists, Brandon (Phillippe), learns he has been stop-lossed when he goes back to base to get his discharge papers, and although he comes from a military family and has no evident problems with the war, he refuses on the spot—then punches out two guards and goes AWOL. Phillippe has never struck me as much more than a pretty face, but his underplaying works here. He doesn’t transform into a grandstanding actor; he looks completely at sea. When his pal Steve’s fiancée, Michelle (Abbie Cornish), volunteers to drive him to Washington, D.C., to get help from a senator who promised him the world, Stop-Loss becomes a road movie—an odyssey that leads the pair to the family of a lost friend, a fleabag motel where another AWOL stop-loss casualty hides out with his wife and sick kid, and a hospital where Brandon’s squad mate Rico (Victor Rasuk) lies blind and severely maimed.
It’s ironic that Stop-Loss loses its momentum when the characters go on the road. Yet Rasuk—the star of Raising Victor Vargas—gives a stunning performance: He plays Rico as upbeat, almost content, knowing that Iraq was “payback for 9/11” and determinedly building up his one remaining bicep. And by rights this part of the film should crawl along and go essentially nowhere. Brandon, whose life is bound up in his role as a soldier, has no real recourse; and Peirce and her co-writer, Mark Richard, have no answers. The power of Stop-Loss—and this is no dumb joke—is that it shows its hero between Iraq and a hard place.
In The Flight of the Red Balloon, the great Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao Hsien uses Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 masterpiece The Red Balloon as a springboard for his own masterpiece—a distinctively modern and allusive one, yet so tender and plaintive that you understand what Hou is up to on a preconscious level. Lamorisse’s balloon now floats above Simon (Simon Iteanu), a 7-year-old Paris boy whose single mother, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), can barely keep her life together, and whose new nanny, Song (Song Fang), is a quiet, attentive film student who thinks about making her own version of The Red Balloon.
The film is built on contrasts, on invisible currents and crosscurrents. There is the steadiness of Hou’s camera and the chaos of Suzanne’s world, with its implicit toll on the psyche of her little boy, lost amid the clatter. Suzanne writes puppet shows in which her mythical characters are transfigured, yet her life is miserably untranscendent. She sits amid piles of paper, her peroxided hair clenched, wailing into her phone, high-strung and bereft. Binoche improvised her lines, fumbling her way along like Suzanne, and the tension between her myopia and Hou’s higher gaze gives the film its center, its meaning.
The Flight of the Red Balloon is full of allusions to filmmaking, even to the art of making a balloon pulled around by a person look as though it’s floating free. That balloon stands in for Hou and Song; at times it has the impishness of a Miyazaki god. It watches over this neglected child, helpless to intervene. Yet its beneficence—and the art that gave birth to it—makes you look to the sky, and hope.