Stop-Loss writer-director Kimberly Peirce has to be feeling a little like a green grunt on D-Day. Everywhere she looks, her fellow Iraq War filmmakers are being gunned down in a hail of bad reviews, tepid box-office, and widespread cultural indifference, their good intentions splattered everywhere. The list of the War On Terror's cinematic casualties includes Paul Haggis' sleepily received In The Valley Of Elah, a film Stop-Loss greatly resembles in theme and plot. It almost functions as a reverse-angle variation on Elah: Both films center on the gradual disillusionment of good soldiers conditioned to believe the best of their superiors and the country for which they've fought. Elah examined this story from the viewpoint of an ex-soldier trying to ferret out the reasons his son went AWOL and disappeared; Stop-Loss explores it from the viewpoint of a soldier who goes AWOL after his tour of duty is abruptly lengthened.
Showing a depth and maturity unthinkable during his early days as a pretty-boy male starlet, Ryan Phillippe stars as a skilled soldier who returns home from a particularly hellacious tour in Iraq to find that he's been "stop-lossed," a policy that allows the military to extend soldiers' contracts involuntarily. At first, Phillippe seems convinced that he'll be able to pull some strings with a sympathetic congressman, but he gradually comes to realize that his only two real options are becoming an AWOL outlaw, or returning for active duty.
As in her superlative debut feature Boys Don't Cry, Peirce (working from a screenplay she co-wrote with Mark Richard) explores politically incendiary subject matter with empathy, sensitivity, and a particularly sharp sense of place, in this case, a lovingly depicted Texas. Stop-Loss is a human story first and foremost, and Peirce and her stellar young cast ensure that the message never gets in the way of the storytelling. It remains to be seen whether Stop Loss will be any better received than the less accomplished but equally well-intentioned Iraq films that came before it, but like her affectionately drawn hero, Pierce seems intent on facing her fate with dignity and grace.