It has been almost nine years since Kimberly Peirce's breakthrough directorial debut, "Boys Don't Cry," and it has taken just as many years for her to make another film. "Stop-Loss" marks her sophomore slump. This necessarily cynical and downbeat drama, the umpteenth tale revolving around the Iraq War in the last couple years, gets points for showing the alternate point-of-view of soldiers returning home from their tour of duty and struggling to readjust to their old lives. Writer-director Peirce and co-screenwriter Mark Richard are tough in their exploration of this topic, but they also are set adrift by a story that wanders around for too long and ultimately doesn't go anywhere of note.
Having experienced the hells of war firsthand, soldiers Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum) and Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) arrive back in their small Texas town to much support and fanfare. Having completed their stints in Iraq, they looks forward to moving on with their lives. Instead, Sgt. Brandon King is understandably angered and defiant when he learns he has been stop-lossed and is expected to return for another tour of duty in a matter of weeks. Believing this to be a gross injustice, he and Steve's fiancée Michelle (Abbie Cornish) go on the run, headed for Washington, D.C., where Brandon foolishly hopes to meet with a senator and be pardoned. As Brandon's options narrowhe can either return to Iraq as assigned or flee permanently to Canada or Mexicohe must begrudgingly face the reality that, whatever choice he makes, he risks losing his life to a war he no longer believes in.
"Stop-Loss" opens with stark sequences of combat that paint a none too pretty picture of what our soldiers currently face in Iraq day in and day out. Moving the setting back to American soil by the fifteen-minute mark, the film properly acquaints Brandon, Steve and Tommy to the viewer and makes it almost instantly known that none of them are going to find an easy road back to the lives they once knew. As Tommy turns to the bottle, is kicked out by wife Jeanie (Mamie Gummer), and finally finds himself facing time for a DUI, Steve discovers that his place in the military is the only one that makes sense for him. Brandon, despite suffering guilt over the deaths he caused of innocent bystanders, seems to be the most well-adjusted and eager to put the war behind him. Being forced to go back to it just as he expects to be discharged is something he sees as a blatant betrayal, and for good reason.
As "Stop-Loss" turns into something of a road movie, it starts to meander and lose its way. Temporary conflicts, such as a violent run-in Brandon has with a trio of thieves, come off as strained and too on-the-nose, serving to depict Brandon's haunted state-of-mind in contrived ways. His relationship with Michelle, which one supposes is meant to build romantic tension, remains platonic, and nothing ever comes of it. The same goes for Brandon's options, limited though they may be. Back home, Tommy's self-destructive behavior leads to a plot point that is telegraphed far in advance. The film is dramatically potent in spurts, developing a clear picture of the staggering effects that war has not only on the troops who fight in them, but on their families and loved ones. At the same time, director Kimberly Peirce is unable to reach a conclusion that isn't foregone. Perhaps that's the sad and pitiable truth that she wishes to bring to light, but the same basic material has already been cinematically traveled for the past six or seven decades, going as far back as 1946's Oscar-winning "The Best Years of Our Lives."
There was a time when Ryan Phillippe's (2006's "Flags of Our Fathers
") career lurked in the shadows of that of his now-ex-wife Reese Witherspoon, but he has arguably been making smarter and more interesting choices in recent years. Phillippe, despite never seeming to ageis he always going to look like he's twenty-five?has shaped himself from a pretty-boy flavor of the month into a markedly gifted actor with range and charisma. In the lead role of Sgt. Brandon King, Phillippe adopts a thick southern accent that, for the most part, works, and lends his part a lot of weight without aiming for overwrought mannerisms and theatrics. Measured, cooled, and yet brimming beneath the surface with fear and uncertainty, Phillippe delivers an excellent performance.
As Steve and Tommy, who are battling their own personal sets of demons, Channing Tatum (2006's "She's the Man
") and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (2007's "The Lookout
") are equally adept with less screen time and more basic character arcs. Though the film is never quite sure what to do with her, the beautiful and soulful Abbie Cornish (2006's "A Good Year
") frequently stands out as Michelle, who sees the life she has envisioned for herself and Steve uncontrollably slipping away from her.
"Stop-Loss" is one-sided in its view of timely subject matter, and it proudly makes no excuses for it. As a director, Kimberly Peirce is confident in the points she wants to make, but less so in bringing them to fruition. 2007's "In the Valley of Elah
" posed many of the same ideas and covered much of the same ground, but was more focused and cutting in its arguments. Acted with aplomb and occasionally compelling, "Stop-Loss" nevertheless fails to impress. It's just the latest sincere entry in a long line of motion pictures about the Iraq War, and it fails to carve out a memorable spot for itself within this subgenre.