Stop-Loss addresses the unpleasant aftershocks of our latest unpopular war — the maimed bodies and marriages; the PTSD; the loss of faith in God, Uncle Sam, and Chief George — from the perspective of the soldiers themselves. It could easily have been called The Worst Years of Our Lives. Soldiers come back to the good old U.S. of A. — some upright, some on wheels. On cue, they begin to go a little bit crazy, picking bar fights, convulsing with night terrors. Not long after, one GI decides to blow his own head off, another voluntarily reenlists, and a third goes AWOL.
Of course, it's hardly director Kimberly Peirce's fault that life has chosen to imitate . . . life, and for all of the film's innate familiarity, there are moments in Stop-Loss that crackle with uncanny verisimilitude. Following a nerve-fraying firefight between U.S. soldiers and Iraqi insurgents in a narrow Tikrit alleyway, the movie really springs to life, once it touches down deep in the heart of Texas, where three survivors of that ambush — Sergeants Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) and Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), and a fellow officer, Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) — return to their families amid much pomp, circumstance, and streaming tinsel. In high school, Brandon and Steve were star players on a championship football team; now, they're another kind of conquering hero, pinned with medals for valor by a smiling senator. As she ably demonstrated in her previous film, the Oscar-winning Boys Don't Cry, this is the sort of thing that Peirce does very well: She puts blue-collar, red-state American life onscreen without glib irony or smug disdain.
Stop-Loss is on considerably shakier ground once the title — shorthand for a loophole in military contracts that allows soldiers to be redeployed in wartime even after fulfilling the terms — comes home to roost, and Peirce shifts her focus from the vicissitudes of small-town life to one man's fight against the military-industrial complex. "You're going to send me back for 11 more years?" Brandon asks incredulously, upon receiving his new orders from his suitably oily superior (Timothy Olyphant). "Fuck the president!" Brandon adds for good measure. That's about as political as Stop-Loss ever gets. Like Coming Home, it doesn't oppose the war at hand per se; it objects uniformly to all wars that leave our fighting men in various states of physical and psychological paralysis. It's a work of blanket pacifism.