What if Johnny never comes marching home again? That's the tragic idea that runs throughout Stop Loss. What if you gave an endless war and no one ever got off the tour bus for longer than it takes to go AWOL, or go mad? Stop Loss takes its title from the military's term for its loophole policy that can require soldiers to serve multiple back-to-back tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Director Kimberly Peirce's last time behind the camera was the accolade-magnet Boys Don't Cry. It garnered her enough prestige to hold out for seven years before finally choosing screenwriter Mark Richard and embarking on her second feature, which opens smack dab in the fog of war. Tikrit-based Staff Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) and the men in his squadron are sweltering and bored while manning an Iraqi checkpoint. Suddenly, they find themselves in pursuit of a possible carload of insurgents who lead King's squad straight into a textbook alleyway ambush. The next five minutes are almost too horrific to watch if you know anyone Over There.
When the sniper fire winds down and the blood loss carves out tiny Tigris and Euphrates rivers of red in the Persian dirt, King and his surviving squad members head home to Texas, back to reality, such as it is. Stop-lossed almost immediately, King goes AWOL with Michele (Abbie Cornish), the girlfriend of squaddie Shriver (Channing Tatum), hoping to get to D.C. to plead his case with a potentially sympathetic senator.
Phillippe does a dark, searing turn with a character that could have been little more than Taps-era hubris, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as one of King's more fragmented former charges, is riveting. Stop Loss does not deign to do what the audience may expect, or want, or need. Just when you think you know where it's headed, the film throws you another ricochet.