Stop Loss isn't really a war movie. Instead it falls into the far trickier subgenre of home front-aftermath melodrama, which, in its best moments, belongs in the company of The Deer Hunter and The Best Years of Our Lives. The snag is that those best moments are very often undercut by digressions into formula and an urge to wander into a political minefield from which there are no easy extractions.
The film is well-intentioned, but, like its steely-eyed hero, quickly runs out of places to go. The story centers on a U.S. hero of Iraq and Afghanistan who's forced to return to combat after thinking he'd done his duty — so he goes AWOL. It becomes a road trip, not to safety or salvation, but to a string of metaphoric scenarios, from a VA hospital full of shattered warriors to slums filled with domestic wreckage. The further AWOL Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillipe) gets from home and family, the more the movie drifts into a no-man's-land of clichéd scenarios and stock characters standing in for societal ills like stunt doubles. Everyone in Brandon's way — from confused friends to glad-handing senators to rigid commanders — are caught in a rut of programmed thinking, unable to help him or accept his pleas for justice. Of course, they're meant to be standing in for us, a public that asks impossible things of our young soldiers and then can't be bothered to understand or care when they return home still carrying the bottomless aggression they needed to survive. Try as it might, the movie can never really make us understand the hell these soldiers have suffered, which is the point, but also the major disconnect.
It does have the good fortune to be anchored by Ryan Phillipe, shaking off any last pretty-boyish vestiges to claim the equity he's been building up in quality movies such as Breach. Phillipe has us believing that we're watching a living human being — an honorable, soulful Texas good-old-boy — who at last confronts the limitations of his boundless love of country.
The other actors show mixed results. The square-jawed Channing Tatum — who'll soon channel his buzz-headed fury as Duke in G.I Joe — leads the charge of the overacting brigade. Tatum's got depth, but also a knack for overselling his Deputy Dawg drawl and lifting his machismo to toxic levels. Better is the beguiling Abbie Cornish, who effectively replaces her Aussie twang with a honky-tonk sexiness that's watchable even as an underwritten love interest who has nothing to do but twirl her hair.
Director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry) is skilled enough to create exciting battle scenes and make a shit-kicker town feel like heaven — she knows that place. So it's a letdown when she goes looking at the rest of America. Stop Loss can find no answer but to keep fighting, but it attempts to think of something better first.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.