"Stop-Loss" is co-produced by MTV, and the soundtrack consequently works overtime. Heavy metal, alt-pop, southern rock, orchestral swells, wailing Middle Eastern tunes all vie for our attention, but none of this noise drowns out the sound of good intentions twisting themselves into an impotent knot.
The movie's the latest off-Hollywood drama to examine the effects of the Iraq War on the US soldiers fighting it, and like previous films - "In the Valley of Elah," "Home of the Brave," "Lions for Lambs," "Redacted" - it's earnest, outraged, and more than a little confused. Pundits wonder why no one wants to see these movies, and it's true American audiences don't have the stomach for bad news (especially when it's about us), but can't the films themselves be at fault, too?
In "Stop-Loss," writer-director Kimberly Peirce ("Boys Don't Cry") tells a story of Texas buddies who grew up together and shipped out together; now they're back home and a mess. The first 15 minutes of the film are set in Iraq and shot, as is the fashion, with a shaky, you- are-there digital camera. We see a checkpoint incident lead inexorably to a back-alley ambush - order devolving into chaos - and the worst part is that the scene feels all too familiar by now.
Then, almost magically, we're back in small-town America, with the locals asking the returning soldier boys, "Hey, we winning this thing?" Says Sergeant Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum) "We're killin' 'em in Iraq so we won't have to kill 'em in Texas!", but the truth is he's brought the enemy back with him. Shriver gets so drunk his first night home he's scared to go inside; he just digs a foxhole in the front yard and goes to sleep.
He's still a pillar of strength next to Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the kind of twitchy psycho veteran the movies have been mining since the first wave of Vietnam films. The third main character is squad leader Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), like Shriver a former high school football god turned mortal.
Brandon is holding it together, more or less, until he learns the US Army intends to forcibly re-enlist him using the backdoor loophole known as "stop-loss." "With all due respect, sir, [expletive] the president," he tells his startled commanding officer (Timothy Olyphant). Then he goes AWOL.
The problems with the film are twofold. First, Peirce wants to pile every calamity afflicting Iraq War veterans onto her narrative. Alcoholism, domestic abuse, PTSD, night terrors, suicidal behavior, prosthetic limbs - what starts as drama becomes unrelieved litany.
She also insists on stuffing her valid concerns about the stop-loss policy and other issues into the cramped box of Hollywood convention. Once underground, Brandon tries to contact his US senator (Josef Sommer) for help, but instead of picking up the telephone, he drives from Texas to Washington, D.C. Why? Because the director wants to make a road movie - an odyssey across the scrapheap of post-tour America.
And since there has to be a girl, Brandon is accompanied by Michelle (Abbie Cornish), his best friend's fiancee. Cornish first landed on the radar with her messed-up, sexed-up teenager in the 2004 Australian drama "Somersault," and she's much the best thing here, big-boned and disgusted with the nonsense of Texan boy-men.
There are moments during Brandon and Michelle's wanderings where Peirce gets to some ugly truths about life in America: the despairing exhaustion of an invisible underclass (here the "lay-low soldiers" who live entire lives on the run), a two-tiered system of race and class where the family of a Mexican private (Victor Rasuk) gets green cards only if he dies. The scene in which Tommy and his fellow vets use his wedding presents for target practice says everything about the resentments of inarticulate men, and with the necessary gallows humor.
But you know where Tommy's headed - yes, you do - and once he gets there, "Stop-Loss" comes undone. A climactic scene at a funeral is dreadfully written, acted, and shot, the mark of a good filmmaker clutching at straws, and the ridiculous ending is nothing less than a slap in our face. Peirce wants to leave us with something heavy to ponder, but I'll be damned if I can figure out what that is.
Phillippe strikes an appealing, if thin, pose of righteous martyrdom, but Tatum's Shriver is ultimately the more interesting figure - a hulking, smart/stupid Army lifer who just wants to go back to Iraq so he can kill the hadjis in his head. "Let me be the faceless enemy," he says, and right there is what the rest of "Stop-Loss" fruitlessly seeks: the panic of a good old boy in a bad new world.