There’s a scene toward the beginning of Stop-Loss that encapsulates the movie. A band of Texas good ol’ boys is back from a tour of duty in Iraq, and their town is throwing them a parade. Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) has just been decorated for his bravery, so his lieutenant colonel asks him to get on the podium and give the crowd a “recruitment speech.” But King is still reeling from an ambush in Tikrit that caused the deaths of three men in his squad — and some Iraqi civilians. All he can do is mumble a few words about how happy he is to be back in Texas, where he can smell onion fields. As his superior’s expression darkens, Brandon’s bull-necked buddy Steve (Channing Tatum) steps up to bail him out. “We’re killin’ ’em over there in Iraq,” he yells, “so we don’t have to kill ’em here in Texas!” The crowd goes wild.
Like that interrupted speech, Stop-Loss is sometimes a fumbling, earnest personal tale, sometimes more of a ham-handed simplification. True, it’s never a “recruitment speech” for the U.S. Army. Writer-director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry) and her co-writer Mark Richard focus on the vicissitudes of a committed soldier. Phillippe’s character never comes right out and denounces the war, but he has serious problems with the “stop-loss” policy that allows the Army to call soldiers back to active duty after they’ve completed their contracted terms of service. When Brandon is stop-lossed, he decides he’d rather go AWOL than return to Iraq. Hoping for help from a friendly senator, he sets off for D.C., accompanied by Steve’s fiancée Michelle (Abbie Cornish), who’s disturbed by her boyfriend’s drunken violence and habit of digging foxholes on the lawn.
Anyone who’s seen a movie about soldiers returning from combat in Iraq or Vietnam will recognize plenty of clichés. Brandon and Steve both suffer from PTSD so extreme that a hand on their shoulder triggers a return to combat mode, while their friend Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who wants to go back to Iraq, can’t stay sober long enough to do his job. The thudding irony is that the soldier who’s smart enough to want out of this mess is the one the Army won’t let go. “You know that box in your head where you put all the bad stuff?” Brandon laments. “Well, mine’s full.”
Stop-Loss has been conceived in simple enough terms that its core demographic — think MTV Films — can’t miss the message. But there’s also something genuine here, and it comes through in the film’s details. Peirce told The New York Times she was inspired by video footage her half-brother brought back from his own service in Iraq, montages in which soldiers found their own ways of dramatizing their stories. Some of those amateur war movies are reproduced in the film, along with the turbulent feelings they convey — intense loyalty to the group, doubts about authority, eagerness to “blow shit up.”
As she did in Boys, Peirce recreates a world of young, redneck male bonding with what feels like real affection. The movie’s strength lies in little scenes like the one where the soldiers use their crack aim on a rattlesnake and fry it up for dinner, or where Michelle plays pool with a hospitalized vet who’s a triple amputee — but still a good shot. The actors rise to their challenges: Phillippe, often a lightweight, makes his bland, sweet-faced quality work for him as he moves into darker territory. Tatum gives depth to his even darker character, and Cornish has a husky-voiced presence reminiscent of the young Debra Winger.
As a message movie, Stop-Loss belabors its single point and invites critique for going too far or not far enough: Critics on the right say it misrepresents the military, while some on the left have accused it of jingoism. But as a portrait of the soldiers as people — not symbols — it comes into its own.