Kimberley Peirce's long-awaited follow-up to Boys Don't Cry is nothing more than Wikipedia research built on the skeleton of a plot.
"Stop-loss" refers to a subsection of the US army enlistment contract that allows the military to send a soldier back into the trenches after his service has ended. The quite legal manoeuvre was codified after the Vietnam War, when the United States went to an all-volunteer army and has been used in practically every major conflict since then: the Gulf War, Somalia, Bosnia and, now, the Iraq war.
Since September 11, about 650,000 US servicemen and women have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq; one-eighth of those have been stop-lossed. The practice has been called a "backdoor draft" and when a soldier expecting his release papers is handed his new assignment instead, it usually comes as a surprise. The movie Stop-Loss, the second effort by the director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry), tells the story of Sgt Brandon King, a recipient of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, who goes absent without leave rather than submit to his stop-loss order.
The film begins on the streets of Tikrit, where King's squadron is ambushed. Several of his men die, one is severely injured. He saves the life of his best buddy, Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum). When his team returns home to Texas to a heroes' welcome, the war returns with them: one flakes out on his fiancée and digs a trench during a blackout, one uses his wedding gifts as target practice. King holds the men together, however, much as he did when they were in Iraq.
Ryan Phillippe is solid as the earnest young man whose life has been turned upside down. When King goes Awol, he goes on the road with Shriver's fiancée, Michelle, played by Abbie Cornish. Like any road movie, this part of the film is a metaphor for the emotional journey of the travellers. It has several set-pieces that mark King's trip to Washington in an attempt to have a senator intervene in the stop-loss order and, failing that, the subsequent trip to Buffalo, New York, on the Canadian frontier. The set-pieces, like exits on a motorway, are Peirce at her strongest as a filmmaker and the best of these shows King visiting one of his men, Rico, at Walter Reed, the US military hospital, where the soldier is recuperating, blind and missing his right arm and leg.
Michelle, meanwhile, plays pool with a paraplegic soldier as if they were best buddies in a Texas poolroom. Cornish, actually, is the best part of the film, which, like its main character and other recent Iraq war movies, is just too darn earnest. Michelle at one point says she does not see herself as a military wife - this after Steve has decided to re-up. She says she is not strong enough. But she is the strength in this movie, not Sgt King, who, we discover, is no hero. He led his men into that ambush and, when push comes to shove, he has not the strength of his convictions either.
Michelle, however, like military wives and girlfriends, quietly absorbs and processes the violence that has been done her man. King's mug is the last image of the movie, but it is Michelle who haunts. Stop-Loss, in the end, turns out to be part buddy film, part road movie, and part war movie (some young male viewers will even see it as a recruitment video). Mostly, it is Wikipedia research built on the skeleton of a plot.