Stop-Loss (15)

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The Independent Culture

Eight years have passed since Kimberly Peirce's sensational debut Boys Don't Cry, for which Hilary Swank won her first Oscar as a girl who masqueraded as a boy, with fatal consequences. Yet the film she has made as a follow-up suggests that the long delay has not been wasted.

Stop-Loss, a harrowing movie about US involvement in Iraq, seems at first sight to have little in common with the gender-flipped drama of Boys Don't Cry. The longer the film continues, however, the deeper the resonances between them appear. What fascinates Peirce is the volatile nature of masculinity; remembering the rage of those smalltown thugs once they had unmasked their guy as a girl, it's only a small imaginative leap to the story of young men tearing themselves and their families apart as they try to adjust from being soldiers to citizens.

There's also the grace note of the name. Swank's character called herself Brandon, which also happens to be the name of the soldier, played by Ryan Phillippe, who's at the centre of Stop-Loss. It may not be important, but it does imply a traumatic bond of victimhood.

Staff Sgt Brandon King has won a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his heroic service in Iraq, and the welcome that he and his comrades receive on returning to their Texas hometown indicates just how warmly their sense of duty and courage are appreciated. Brandon also knows how lucky he and his close friends Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are, having survived a street ambush in Tikrit where several of their squad were killed.

Still haunted by the savagery of combat experience, the three men struggle to fit back in with civilian life; Steve and Tommy seem unable to order a beer in a bar without getting into a fight, and, like many others before them, they become estranged from their wives and girlfriends. Brandon is mentally the strongest, but for him the fates prove even crueller.

On handing over his discharge papers, Brandon receives orders to return to Iraq – "stop-lossed", in military jargon, denotes a loophole whereby the Army can extend a soldier's contract in times of war. Peirce first heard about this practice from her younger brother, who enlisted in the army after September 11 and served in Iraq; he told her of a decorated soldier who had done his term and was preparing to return to his family when the Army stop-lossed him. Developing a story with screenwriter Mark Richard, Peirce found that an estimated 81,000 soldiers had suffered the same treatment – a "backdoor draft", essentially. With no legal recourse, however, they had no chance of beating it. Some went Awol; some went to prison.

Brandon refuses, flat-out, another tour of Iraq, and when he is put under guard he makes a bolt for it. The movie becomes a strange kind of fugitive drama as this one-time war hero hits the road, hoping that a friendly senator in Washington will help bail him out. He is chastely accompanied by his friend Michelle (Abbie Cornish), through whose eyes we begin to realise the psychological cost of Iraq, first in her alienation from fiancé Steve, then in witnessing Brandon deal a military-style beating to three hoods who tried to rob him.

Peirce is making the perfectly reasonable point that young men trained to kill in their country's defence may have difficulty trying to "cool it" once back on home soil. While on the run, Brandon tries to recover his bearings by visiting the family of a dead comrade, and later calls on another squad mate who's recovering in a military hospital, blinded and maimed. The poignancy that the director invests in these scenes is horribly moving.

Faced with the task of embodying the contradictions that beset the American soldier – how to be a patriot when the war is so patently mismanaged, how to be loyal to an Army that offers no loyalty in return – Phillippe does a pretty good job. Before now, I'd regarded his stern, pouty handsomeness as an inadequate cover for a lack of charm and less depth. Even his name sounds like some Eurotrash pop idol. Here, he's put on muscle and menace, but, slowly, a tortured regret and self-loathing also become apparent – he knows he's been profoundly disturbed by his time in Iraq, yet he lacks the emotional vocabulary to unburden it. When he is moved to tell his commanding officer "Fuck the President" (try to suppress a cheer), we sense the outrage on protocol but also the anguished defiance of a man who's at the end of his rope.

Peirce's film is so thoughtful about the psychological tug between duty and conscience, and so honourable in its refusal to jeer at patriotism, that one only wishes it had slightly more impact in its details – aside from Phillippe, there's not enough in the other performances. Gordon-Levitt, probably the best actor of the bunch, is a marginal figure, and Cornish as the girlfriend is a bit wet. Clichés occasionally slip through the net: I hope never again to hear the variant "I don't know who I am/you are/he is any more".

But these are quibbles. Peirce's film delivers a blistering account of what war does to young men, first in that battle prologue (brilliantly directed) and then in the confused and largely unsuccessful struggle to acclimatise to civilian life. "A soldier can be a danger to himself – and to others," the families are warned just before their sons return from Iraq. Of all the things those soldiers can't handle, Stop-Loss powerfully expresses the worst – the news that their country is sending them right back there.