Here’s the first major movie of the new year that touches greatness, and damn if there isn’t a curse hanging over it. Stop-Loss, directed with ferocity and feeling by Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry), is up against the war raging between audiences and films about Iraq. Box-office casualties last year include Lions for Lambs, Rendition, Redacted, Grace Is Gone and the unfairly scorned In the Valley of Elah.
Stop-Loss has the juice to break the jinx. The emotional battlefield on which Peirce paints her canvas strikes a universal chord that transcends politics and preaching. Peirce, who co-wrote the script with Mark Richard, takes us inside the minds and hearts of soldiers who enlisted after 9/11. Why? “To get the people who had done this,” in the words of Peirce, whose brother joined a unit attached to the 82nd Airborne. At first, Peirce thought of making documentary about the trauma faced by men and women in military service who struggle to re-enter civilian life after duty in Iraq. She was struck hard by a story told by her brother about a soldier who’d done his time and been stop-lossed by the Army. The term refers to the involuntary extension of a soldier’s enlistment contract. It turns out nearly 81,000 have been sent back into battle multiple times with no recourse — class-action lawsuits routinely fail — except to go AWOL. Using fictional characters, Peirce decided to craft a film about the lives of soldiers and their families living in a ghost world created by questionable government policy.
Some have already accused Stop-Loss of glorifying desertion. Bull. The film is a powder keg with no agenda except the human one. Ryan Phillippe stars as Sgt. Brandon King, just returned home to Brazos, Texas, with his childhood buddy Sgt. Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum). No matter how they try to eradicate the images of ambush that run in their heads, the men find their terror manifested in bar fights and bad dreams. Their friend Tommy Burgess (the superb Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is coming apart without the outlet war gave his violent, alcoholic nature. He opens fire on the gifts he and wife Jeanie (Mamie Gummer) receive at their wedding. Steve is waking up at night to dig a foxhole, much to the distress of his fiancée, Michele, Abbie Cornish). And Brandon, living with supportive parents (Lindamond and Ciarân Hinds), loses it when he’s ordered back to Iraq. His decision to desert stuns Steve, as does Michele’s decision to aid Brandon in his escape to Canada. The scenes of AWOL soldiers and their families living in an underground that extends across the country are the soul of the film.
None of this would work if Peirce hadn’t inspired her crew to push the envelope. Cinematographer Chris Menges, a poet of natural light, performs miracles of visual design. All the actors are exceptional. Phillippe (Flags of Our Fathers, Breach) is a dynamo, and indelibly moving when he catches Brandon in the act of discovering himself. Watch for the scene at a military hospital where he visits wounded comrade Rico Rodriguez (a knockout Victor Rasuk) and learns a hardcore lesson. Tatum (Step Up, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints) excels by going beyond the call of hunk duty to find the demons tormenting Steve. His fistfight with Brandon at a cemetery locates the film’s grieving heart. The most surprising performance comes from Cornish, the Aussie actress best known for her junkie turn opposite Heath Ledger in Candy. Female roles are usually marginal in war movies, but Cornish — working in tandem with Peirce — makes Michele a compassionate warrior who may be torn between two lovers but holds no doubt about the moral ground on which she stands. There’s not an ounce of Hollywood fakery in Cornish — she’s the real deal. So’s the movie. And so is Peirce. It’s been nine years since she debuted with Boys Don’t Cry, but her empathy with society’s outsiders is undiminished and fills every frame of Stop-Loss. Even when the script slips into sentiment, Peirce sticks with her troubled, questing soldiers, and through this raw and riveting movie, they stick with us.