It's been nearly a decade since Kimberly Peirce made the Oscar-winning
Boys Don't Cry
. Her newest film, which she cowrote and directed, might well carry the same title. It is about boys, fierce and fervent, who have enlisted to fight in Iraq. They don't cry. They joke, rage, seethe, shoot, sustain injury and complete tours of duty - only to be redeployed again.
Stop-Loss, Peirce's vital portrait of soldiers snared by the Army loophole that sends them back to Iraq, has the rhythms and imagery of a generation-defining film. While it would be premature to decorate it as the Best Years of Our Lives or Coming Home of the Surge, Stop-Loss carries the emotional force and propulsive drama of the quintessential soldier's story.
Admittedly, the opening sequences of this MTV-produced film look like The Real World: Karbala. Co-opting the style of soldier-shot footage captured on digicams, cellphones and Palm Pilots, the early scenes of Stop-Loss are unpromising and inauthentic as a Parisian popster who tries to imitate Elvis.
Yet Peirce makes it work. Her DIY digital diary of a grunt's life-and-death encounters at military checkpoints and in the crossfire of an urban raid introduces the audience to her principal characters in action.
There's Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), the unifier, squad leader of the boys from Brazos, Texas, effectively the film's superego. There's Sgt. Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), sharpshooter, its id. Barely surviving an ambush with them are Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the baby-faced newlywed, and Rico (Victor Rasuk), who loses his limbs to a guerrilla's grenade that claims other squad members.
Like Chris Menges' low-key and lucid cinematography, Peirce's direction of her actors is intimately scaled and matter-of-fact. No bid to make a sentimental story or sweeping war allegory. Just a document of the struggles of those fighting the external war in Iraq (or war at home) while battling inner demons.
All the performances are quiet and pitch-perfect, Phillippe, Tatum and Abbie Cornish (as Michelle, Steve's fiancee and Brandon's friend) the best of the best in conveying moral pain and outrage. As Peirce frames it, separation and war have crossed and shorted their internal wiring. Sparks fly.
Arriving home in Brazos after their tour of duty, Brandon grows misty when he sees the onion fields of home. He's happy to be back, unlike Steve and Tommy.
Without the daily structure of discipline and armed confrontation, they grow restive. They don't know what to do with their adrenaline surges. This leads to a black-comic sequence involving an inventive way to open wedding presents and other, more tragic, outcomes.
Thus when Brandon and Steve go to the base to exchange their gear for separation papers, they learn that they've been stop-lossed. Their different responses - anguish and thoughts of going AWOL for war-hero Brandon and orders-following relief for Steve - occupies the film's second half.
In this politicized country during this polarizing war in an election year, Stop-Loss will generate debate about its political point of view. Without pulling any punches, the film is pro-soldier, anti-bureaucrat, war-neutral, and deeply, deeply affecting.