"Stop-Loss" is an anti-war movie with a war hero at its center. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) is a decorated soldier who returns to his Texas hometown believing his days in the Army are over. But instead of being discharged as expected, he is told he is being shipped back to Iraq as a stop-loss: the way the Army holds on to soldiers who fulfilled their contracts, but are deemed too valuable to allow out of the service.
First things first. This movie is violent and very profane. It suffers from editing problems, which interfere with the narrative flow. Some of the actors' accents, because it is about west Texas, are simply over the top. That said, this movie tells an important story.
The movie begins in Iraq, where Brandon's team is doing road-check work. These duties lead to an incident in which some members of Brandon's team are killed or injured, creating a formative and haunting experience for the survivors upon their return home.
Among the survivors is Steve (Channing Tatum), who is slated to be discharged with Brandon. Steve is to marry Michelle (Abbie Cornish), but Steve is also haunted by his time in Iraq. He gets drunk, hits Michelle and goes outside to dig in to wait for the enemy. Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who was baptized in Iraq, also lost his best friend there. He turns to alcohol as a means of medicating himself from his pain.
Brandon's parents (Linda Emond and Ciaran Hinds) support his decision to fight the forced return to Iraq. Mrs. King tells Brandon to go to Mexico to avoid the return, but Brandon decides to go to Washington to talk to Sen. Worrell (Josef Sommer), who decorated Brandon. Michelle goes with Brandon on the road, and they discover others on the run from stop-loss. They meet a lawyer who tells Brandon he can give him a new identity and send him to Canada, but if Brandon goes he can never return.
"Stop-Loss" presents a complicated story. Brandon enlisted after Sept. 11 and kept his end of the bargain. Now he wants what was promised: to go home. Still more is demanded, however.
The story pulls no punches. We see lots of violence and collateral damage. One character remarks that serving in Iraq is not what he thought it would be. The enemy hides in homes and attacks from apartment windows and rooftops. That means women, children and older men are killed in the course of the war.
The movie points out that those who fight this war are largely young people from lower-middle-class and lower-class families. One character maimed in the war is a young Hispanic man who wishes he had died in Iraq because that would mean green cards for his family. These are what were once called the "Silent Majority." They are people who believed that the war was right and served with honor. Yet, when they need—as in Brandon's case—an advocate, they have none.
"Stop-Loss" won't do well in repeat business because of the real pain in this story. But the story is important. In a war where the few serve and sacrifice for the many—and the many have little or no involvement or investment—this movie provides a voice.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: R for graphic violence and pervasive language. Reviewer's Note: Very violent and profane.
Director: Kimberly Peirce
Writers: Kimberly Peirce and Mark Richard
Cast: Brandon King: Ryan Phillippe; Steve Shriver: Channing Tatum; Tommy Burgess: Joseph Gordon-Levitt; Michelle: Abbie Cornish; Sen. Worrell: Josef Sommer; Roy King: Ciaran Hinds; Ida King: Linda Emond.
The movie's official Web site is here.