No brawling, no beating your woman, and no DUIs. In short, nothing that would make the US Army look bad. These are the rules Lt. Col. Boot Miller (Timothy Olyphant) lays down for his men before their leave in Brazos, Texas. (They break them all before sunrise). Only as Brazos native Sgt. King (Ryan Phillippe) is about to find out, the Army doesn’t need his help pissing off townsfolk—his duty is complete, but in less than a month, they’re forcing him to head back to Iraq. King’s been “stop-lossed,” a fine print codicil that says the president can order ex-soldiers back to their units in a time of war. “The president himself said the war was over,” protests King. He knows the argument is empty; under his orders in a tense, chaotic alley firefight, his unit lost one man and disfigured another just days before hopping on the plane home. But he’s not expecting things to go as badly as they do: Boot sentences him to the stockades and King snaps, decks two soldiers and goes AWOL.
Kimberly Peirce’s first film since 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry aims to bring the War on Terror home, literally. Shooting in that bleachy war movie beige, she’s got as keen an eye for small-town Texas as she did for Nebraska, with the exception of a few too many blonde bouffants and glittery belts. But she and co-writer Mark Richard nail the straight-talking, wild-acting rural culture that created King and his fellow hometown soldiers Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (a tricked-out muscular Joseph Gordon-Levitt) where you do what’s right, but first loosen up with a six-pack.
Steve and Tommy have their own demons. They’ve all left Tikrit’s suffocating stress only to find themselves more unhinged by safety. Over there, you didn’t bottle up your pain; you shot off bullets and bombs. Their women wrote love letters and your buddies had your back every minute. In YouTubian videos, Peirce captures their bunker intimacy. Now home, their failure to unwind shatters all those bonds. Polite company gets uncomfortable when Steve insists the political solution is death to all Hajjs. Tommy’s wife (Mamie Gummer) leaves him, and after Steve digs a foxhole in the front yard of long-term girlfriend Michelle (Abbie Cornish) and blacks her eye, she volunteers to drive King—her friend since third grade—up to DC where he’ll beg a senator (Josef Sommer) to pull a few strings.
Reese Witherspoon fans will be relieved that Phillippe and Cornish (rumored to be the cause of their split) don’t share an on-screen kiss, though Cornish’s broad-shouldered, husky-voiced, baby-faced beauty is such a match for Philippe they could pass as twins. On the road, they knock back tequila together like they’ve been doing it since high school. Like him, she doesn’t talk much and when she does, it’s a measured—if too syrupy—drawl. When Peirce layers on King’s hallucinations, the effect is phony; we got his broken brain before he put three car thieves in an execution kneel. Better is when they visit Pvt. Rodriguez (charismatic Victor Rasuk) in the military hospital, a kid we first met flexing and talking big, but is now missing an arm, a leg, and the use of his eyes. Michelle hardly says a word when she plays a triple amputee in a game of pool, but the whole sequence is a tribute to these soldiers’ strength—Rasuk’s sincerity pardoned his forced line that if he got killed, at least his family would have green cards.
Of course, since Peirce’s film is structured so that each character is a puzzle piece of an argument, she can’t let King cross the border without a big final blowout between him and Steve, who thinks his buddy needs to suck it up and slip on his dog tags. By then, despite Phillippe’s quiet comfort in the role, he’s no longer a person but a symbol and their words and punches ring like lead. In the final moment, the film zooms into his eyes and we see . . . nothing. Stop-Loss misses emotional beats and hammers home its frustration; yet in a week where Bush says he’s keeping the troop levels steady just as we’ve lost our 4,000th soldier, its impatience is a virtue.