“Stop-Loss,” Kimberly Peirce’s long-awaited follow-up to “Boys Don’t Cry,” arrives in theaters in the wake of some dispiriting milestones. We have just marked the fifth anniversary of the United States-led invasion of Iraq and the 4,000th American military death since the war began. The level of violence appears to be creeping up again, and troop levels are likely to stay where they are, at least until the next president’s inauguration.
So in some ways, there is a grim, accidental timeliness in the release of “Stop-Loss,” which focuses on the ordeal of American soldiers in and out of combat. Not that the movie’s topicality will necessarily draw crowds. For many viewers (and some critics as well), the prospect of another Iraq movie, like so much else about the war, is likely to be more wearying than galvanizing. The commercial failure of last autumn’s crop of high-profile Iraq-themed movies — Paul Haggis’s “In the Valley of Elah” and Brian De Palma’s “Redacted” among them — has hardened into conventional wisdom about the moviegoing public’s reluctance to engage the war on screen. But those movies did not necessarily deserve their fate, and it would be a shame if “Stop-Loss” were to follow them into oblivion.
I say this partly because Ms. Peirce’s movie, which she wrote with Mark Richard, is not only an earnest, issue-driven narrative, but also a feverish entertainment, a passionate, at times overwrought melodrama gaudy with violent actions and emotions. The sober, mournful piety that has characterized a lot of the other fictional features about Iraq — documentaries are another matter — is almost entirely missing from “Stop-Loss,” which is being distributed by Paramount’s youth-friendly label MTV Films. Not that the movie is unsentimental — far from it — but its messy, chaotic welter of feeling has a tang of authenticity. Instead of high-minded indignation or sorrow, it runs on earthier fuel: sweat, blood, beer, testosterone, loud music and an ideologically indeterminate, freewheeling sense of rage.
Most of these elements are present in the very first scenes, which show mock-amateur video of young soldiers at rest and on duty. Their teasing is raucous and rude, and it is clear from the start that they are neither saints nor monsters, but rather the impure products of American pop culture. With exaggerated bravado, they sing “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” Toby Keith’s anthem of 9/11 payback, which threatens righteous whuppings for America’s enemies: “And it feels like the whole wide world is raining down on you.”
Instead, the world comes crashing down on the soldiers. Staff Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) and his squad, supervising a checkpoint in Tikrit, are drawn into a firefight that leaves some of them dead, others horribly wounded, and the rest badly shaken, both by the loss of their friends and by the deaths of Iraqi civilians. After the trauma of that battle, Brandon and his best pal, Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), are especially relieved to be done with their tours, and they return home to Brazos, Tex., looking forward to a normal life of Lone Star hell-raising.
As their fellow Texan Steve Earle — the Toby Keith of the left — puts it in one of his songs, somebody somewhere had another plan. Brandon discovers that the military has invoked its stop-loss policy, extending his contract and requiring him to go back to Iraq for another tour. Enraged at this betrayal, he goes AWOL. Following in a long movie tradition, he responds to his troubles by hitting the road, in a vintage Detroit muscle car with a beautiful woman, in this case Steve’s fiancée, Michele (Abbie Cornish).
At this point you might feel that “Stop-Loss” is beginning to lose its way. Brandon and Michele’s road trip provides some cinematic and dramatic opportunities — resonant encounters in run-down motels; tearful arguments and episodes of random violence; a frisson of sexual tension — but it is, literally and metaphorically, a journey to nowhere. Mr. Phillippe seethes and worries beautifully, and Ms. Cornish, in spite of some accent trouble (her native Australia is a long way from Texas, geographically and phonetically), gets every nuance of her character’s toughness and bewilderment exactly right.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is also very good as Tommy, a member of Brandon’s squad whose postcombat anguish is especially acute. But the logic of the story and the motivations of the characters seem increasingly confused, as Ms. Peirce and Mr. Richard struggle to control the film’s pace and momentum.
Yet this confusion can be seen as a measure of its honesty. Among the many strengths of “Boys Don’t Cry,” Ms. Peirce’s amazing 1999 debut, are its feel for the rhythms of small-town life and its sense of the emotional risks of friendship, both on display in “Stop-Loss,” which is more interested in character and in place than in narrative housekeeping. A cleaner plot would suspend the audience, and the characters, between equally plausible happy and sad endings.
But as “Stop-Loss” progresses, it becomes clear that, especially for Brandon, there are no good outcomes. He can live as a fugitive or return to combat. And the dispiriting open-endedness of the story, confirmed in its wrenching, hectic final scenes, mirrors the larger reality of the war itself, whose end grows harder to imagine with every passing day.
“Stop-Loss” makes no argument beyond the recognition of that fact. It is an imperfect movie — marred, if anything, by its sincere affection and undisciplined compassion — about the imperfect young men who keep returning to a war the rest of us would prefer not to think about.
“Stop-Loss” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has profanity, heavy drinking, some sexuality and intense combat violence.
Opens on Friday nationwide.
Directed by Kimberly Peirce; written by Mark Richard and Ms. Peirce; director of photography, Chris Menges; edited by Claire Simpson; music by John Powell; production designer, David Wasco; produced by Ms. Peirce, Mark Roybal, Scott Rudin and Gregory Goodman; released by Paramount Pictures and MTV Films. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes.