Writer-director Kimberly Peirce made her first and last movie nine years ago. That was *Boys Don't Cry*, a terrific debut that was timely, issue-driven, nervy, and the kind of movie that sticks with you. Time will tell if Peirce's *Stop-Loss*, which is also poignantly timely and issue-driven, will stick in the national consciousness in the same way. It might, and it might not -- moviegoers have not been beating down the doors for movies about the Iraq War. Maybe our weariness about the seemingly unending war -- now in its fifth year -- or the grim
complexity of our emotional engagement with it, makes sitting through a movie about it just too, too much.
*Stop-Loss* is about the war in Iraq, and also about the war at home, about what happens to soldiers when they return from war. It's a subject much in the news of late, with Iraq vets suffering strikingly high levels of post traumatic stress disorder, and traumatic injury, and encountering a dishearteningly inadequate and mean-spirited government response. PTSD is never explicitly mentioned in *Stop-Loss*, but it's there in the shadows, a spectre that darkens every scene.
The movie starts with faux home videos of a group of soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq. They're boisterous and profane young lads who sing patriotic pop songs that promise to whup the enemy. Their bravado is soon tested when they are caught in a deadly firefight, ambushed in an alley. The battle scenes are staged with gripping and panicky realism, with an acute sense of how, in a war zone, the ordinary quickly goes all to hell. Some soldiers are killed in that fight, others badly wounded. The survivors are shaken, too, by the deaths of civilians, of children and mothers and grandparents who died in homes that became urban battlefields.
For Staff Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) and his buddy Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), it's the last battle of their last tour in Iraq. They are relieved to arrive home in Brazos, Texas, where the most dangerous thing they have to shoot at is an empty beer bottle. Their buddy Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is on leave -- he lost his best friend in Iraq, and he's going back, filled with anger and a desire for vengeance that gives him a sense of purpose in war, but leaves him adrift and unable to function back home.
Brandon's relief at being home is short-lived. His friends start to fall apart immediately, unable to keep their war experience adequately compartmentalized. Then Brandon finds out that he's been stop-lossed -- his contract is involuntarily extended, and he's being sent back to Iraq. His sense of indignation results in an immediate political awakening of sorts, and in short order he chews out his commanding officer (Timothy Olyphant) and insults the president, gets arrested, escapes, goes AWOL, and hits the road in a beat up car with Michelle (Abbie Cornish), his pal Steve's fiancee, heading for Washington where he hopes to get a little help from his senator.
Peirce and cowriter Mark Richard quickly get bogged down trying to cram a whole lot of ideas and incidents into what ends up being a fairly conventional and predictable road trip movie. Brandon and Michelle are on the road to nowhere, but along the way they drift through episodes of random violence, stay in rundown motels, and encounter other stop-lossed vets on the lam and living in limbo. Brandon wrestles with his war experience, and with an acute dilemma: should he cross over into Canada, and a fugitive's oblivion, or go back to Iraq?
That Brandon remains ideologically confused about the war and his role in it gives his character, and the movie, a measure of authenticity that helps things along when the narrative gets pinched by its compressed timeline. An awful lot -- emphasis on the awful -- happens in just a few days, allowing no time for simmering or slow boiling. The war at home, it seems, is just as explosive and requires the same level of on-the-fly decision-making as the war in Iraq. Or maybe the point is that it just seems that way to the people who experience it on both fronts.
Peirce has a good eye and ear for the raucous rhythm and earthy feel of rural small-town life, and also for the messy confusion of young adulthood. *Stop-Loss* presses home the point that these are very young people lost in the fog of war. They're rash, they're idealistic, they drink too much, they brawl too much, and they lack the breadth and depth of experience with which to make sense -- if there's any sense to be made -- of their situation. It's a recipe for melodrama, and *Stop-Loss* has turbulent melodrama in spades. It's an unsteady, disorderly movie, and every bit as messy, I suppose, as the inner lives of its characters, who must contend with fear, anger, and loss, and sort through a complex welter of conflicting values: love, honor, loyalty, patriotism, friendship, and duty. *Stop-Loss* is an imperfect, compassionate, heartfelt movie about imperfect people stuck in impossible situations, with no good options. The movie isn't polemical, nor does it offer bromides or uplift or feel-good solutions. The message, such as it is, is that we all -- those of us here and those of us over there -- have no choice but to get used to being in a situation that's impossible to get used to.