It's been a decade since filmmaker Kimberly Peirce debuted with Boys Don't Cry. That film, about a young woman in the rural Midwest posing as a man (Hilary Swank, who won an Oscar for her portrayal), would mark Peirce as an unlikely choice to helm (and co-write) a project like Stop-Loss, about a trio of macho soldiers from Texas who have come home from a tour in Iraq. On the surface, it might imply a slice of lefty political agitprop that wouldn't have a great feel for the real lives of these soldiers.
But, aside from Swank's astounding performance, what was so notable about Boys Don't Cry was the film's feel for the coarse, mundane reality of modern rural life. Peirce brings that quality to Stop-Loss, where she taps into both the comfort and the listlessness of homefront life in Brazos, Texas.
The surprising combination of critique and empathetic understanding Peirce brings to her projects also comes through in her risky use of country singer Toby Keith's notorious post-9/11 anthem, "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)," which soldiers sing to each other in Iraq during the opening credits and which reappears in a crucial homefront scene toward the end of the movie. The soldiers use the song the same way Peirce presents it for the audience: aware of its corny, reckless, embarrassing bluster but appreciative of its craft and how effectively it taps into national sorrow and rage.
Other than in the very opening scenes, set in a U.S. army camp in Tikrit, Iraq, Stop-Loss lacks the cinematic verve (and nerve) of its exciting trailer. It's toned down and sober. After the credits, we're plopped down on the streets of Tikrit to follow an army unit through a normal workday, one that results in the pursuit of an attacker that leads to an alley ambush. The sequence is precise and merciless but not gratuitous in its depiction of urban, door-to-door combat. It puts you in the head of American soldiers under fire without irresponsibly reducing all Iraqis to menacing others.
From there, Stop-Loss cuts to a homecoming parade as three of these soldiers, childhood Texas friends, return home — hailed as conquering heroes.
These men, sergeants Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) and Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), along with fellow officer Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), struggle with a return to home life in different ways. But the film's core plot is set in motion when Brandon, who, after several tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq, is set for discharge, is ordered back to Iraq via the military's "stop-loss" loophole, which the film labels "a backdoor draft."
Brandon resists, explaining to his worried but more gung-ho father (Ciarán Hinds), "This family is done fighting this war."
Angry and panicked, Brandon goes AWOL with another childhood friend, Michelle (Abbie Cornish), at his side, and this journey makes up most of the film (including a not exactly flattering stop in Memphis).
Here, Stop-Loss refuses to give audiences the comfort that most Hollywood treatments might provide: Brandon doesn't get to speak righteous truth to power, and he doesn't find an easy way out of a difficult problem.
Despite one would-be blue-state applause line from Brandon, Stop-Loss doesn't have much speechifying against the war or the politicians who launched it. It wisely chooses to show rather than tell, most of all when Brandon visits one of his men (Victor Rasuk from the underrated indie film Raising Victor Vargas) at a military hospital.
Unlike other recent Iraq war homefront films — In the Valley of Elah, Grace Is Gone, Lions for Lambs — Stop-Loss centers strongly on the young people fighting the war and, crucially, isn't only about these people, but seems to be for them. It'll get criticized by the liberal press for not attacking the war more directly and strongly. But I wouldn't be surprised to see it become a cult favorite among the people sick of fighting it.