You get a kill or be killed mentality.
— Brandon (Ryan Phillippe)
“My daddy served in the army,” Brandon (Ryan Phillippe) tells a videocamera at the start of Stop-Loss. He’s part of a tradition, his identity forged in league with his fellow soldiers and premised on patriotic duty and pride. Now that his time in Iraq is almost done (“28 days and a wakeup!”), he’s pleased to record and remember his experiences — at least those that involve drinking, card-playing, and other base camp downtime experiences. The combat stuff, he’d just as soon forget.
A sergeant who worries hard about his men, Brandon isn’t happy about his squad’s one last mission, but they do their jobs, taking up their arms and heading out into the streets of Tikrit. When a checkpoint duty leads them downtown, into an ambush, they respond as best they can, Brandon barking orders, his men keeping track of snipers and following protocol. Even still, men are injured or killed by RPGs and gunfire, Brandon’s responses appropriately anguished but also measured. When his fellow sergeant and best friend Steve (Channing Tatum) hard-charges inside an apartment building to find one particular shooter, Brandon groans and heads in as well: he’s going to have to make right an imminent wrong: you know and he knows it.
But here Kimberly Peirce’s film cuts away, forward to Brandon and Steve’s return to their small Texas hometown, where a parade underscores their families’ and neighbors’ pride and also their ignorance: no one can know what the boys have survived, the trauma and guilt they bear, the regrets they must hide. And that’s the well-intentioned point of parades and patriotism, according to Stop-Loss, to provide structure for what goes wrong, to provide order for terrible acts committed by and against soldiers. But while the movie doesn’t belittle such processes of grieving and coping, it does reconsider the costs, especially as the processes have become simultaneously cruder and more insidious during the present wars.
In part, this shift has to do with politics, a point the film makes in some too-emphatic dialogue (“I signed up thinking I was going over there to protect my country,” says Brandon, “But the enemy ain’t out in the desert, they’re in streets and living rooms… Everybody’s got a gun”), and more effectively in visual details: Steve’s fiancée Michele (Abbie Cornish) watches quietly as he drinks too much at their homecoming party, Brandon’s father Roy (Ciarán Hinds) struggles to comfort his anxious son, unable to compare his experience with that of this next generation, high-teched and unprepared military.
The movie’s most visible embodiment of trauma, though certainly not its only one, is Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a kid who repeatedly voices his desire to be manly like his comrades, and to re-up rather than stay home, but whose excessive self-medicating is plainly a sign of distress. On the night of their homecoming party, his wife Jeanie (Mamie Gummer) looks on distressed as he launches into a fight with someone for no good reason. When he arrives at Steve’s place later that night, Tommy drives his car into a tree and, when Brandon checks him out, wakes suddenly, surprised to find himself in the car at all. He is, by the way, carting his wedding presents in the back seat: Jeanie has kicked him out.
Steve is also acting out, so drunk that he not only hits Michele but also digs himself a trench in the front yard, at last falling into a fitful, drunken slumber with his gun held close to his chest. This leaves Brandon to play the film’s moral center, as the fourth lead, Isaac, a.k.a. Eyeball (Rob Brown), is essentially left to play the black guy in the film’s overly schematic rendering of the soldier “types.” (That Eyeball is reasonable, supportive, and smart, and Brown delivers an affecting performance, only underline the offense of the character’s by-the-wayside role.)
As his friends make manly displays of their frustrations, Brandon’s general unease is turned on its head when he learns he is stop-lossed, subject to the military’s fine-print policy of reenlisting soldiers against their will in order to maintain troop levels in Iraq and elsewhere. Erupting at the news, Brandon ends up punching out a couple of security guards and going AWOL, his commanding officer, Lt. Col. Boot Miller (Timothy Olyphant playing smarmy again) threatening him with all kinds of retribution but also trying to wheedle him to come back (charges dropped if he just goes back to Baghdad, etc.). But Brandon believes literally the promise by a visiting senator that he’ll provide “help,” and heads off on a road trip to DC, with Michele in the nurturing-girl’s passenger seat.
Michele is an effective sidekick, warm, tough, and compellingly angry (and able to unload a handgun clip with one hand). But she’s also caught up in a fundamentally conventional structure, the road trip that offers Brandon a series of encounters by which he can measure his overdetermined masculine identity. The journey is punctuated by encounters with characters who are reduced to Walking Lessons For Brandon: a crew of punks who beat him up then serve as stand-in “hajjis” during his own traumatic flashback; a family dealing with a son’s death in Iraq; a fellow stop-lossed veteran “laying low” and unable to looking after his sick child.
Most effective among these plot points is Rico Rodriguez (Victor Rasuk), another kid from Brandon’s town who was also in his unit and who is now dealing with lifelong injuries: he’s missing a leg, an arm, and has been blinded. When he tells Brandon that he’s his first visitor, performing a joyous camaraderie and joking about his running off with “Steve’s Michele,” Rico is a study in how to be a man. But the film also grants you an extra moment with him, after Brandon leaves. Alone, his face falls and his devastation is acutely marked.
In Rico especially, and in Brandon’s confrontations with his own delusions, the movie focuses on the unhealthy rituals of manhood and male community encouraged by the military (specifically, a fear of otherness that translates to racism and misogyny), recalling Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry. Like that remarkable excavation of gender roles and bonds, this movie investigates systems and pressures, indicts institutions rather than individuals. As Steve is increasingly unable to face life away from his comrades and with Michele, Brandon agonizes over deserting his friends and betraying the memories of those he’s already lost. Again and again, the film shows how the devastating experiences and impossible expectations of young men (and the focus here is decidedly men) in wartime are unjustified. These problems are only compounded by the backdrop of the war in Iraq, where, Brandon’s increasingly harrowing flashbacks reveal, troops are under-equipped, under-trained, and profoundly unguided.