Star rating: ****
Dir: Kimberly Peirce
With: Ryan Phillippe, Abbie Cornish, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Hollywood has been quick off the mark to make movies that directly engage with the Iraq War, compared to the 10 years it took Tinseltown to start on Vietnam, but none of them have proved popular with cinema-goers. The Afghanistan-set Lions for Lambs was a lecture, Redacted a mess and In the Valley of Elah too earnest, and all three performed poorly at the box office. Stop-Loss, however, is by turns shocking, thrilling and moving. And while it's a crushing critique of the way the White House is fighting the war in Iraq, it's also a film that fully engages with not just the conflict, but also its audience.
Co-written and directed by Kimberly Peirce, whose teenage brother provided the motivation when he signed up for a tour of duty in Iraq, Stop-Loss takes its title from the imposition of multiple tours of duty on soldiers who should be mustering out, in order to make up the numbers at a time of falling recruitment. Her film follows a group of young soldiers who return home to Texas bearing the physical and emotional scars of the war and find themselves victims of the "back-door draft". Channing Tatum's jock takes the news stoically, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's screw-up flips out and Ryan Phillippe's squad leader Brandon goes Awol. On the road with his best pal's girl, Michelle (Abbie Cornish), Brandon is shocked to learn there are many soldiers like him living outside the law, and that many of them have used underground networks to smuggle themselves across the border to start a new life in Canada.
Far more conventional than Peirce's previous film, the Oscar-winning Boys Don't Cry, Stop-Loss is aimed squarely at the people it's about: teenage and twentysomething working-class kids from the midwest and the south. In that regard, it's bang on target.