Kimberly Peirce's movie makes an impassioned case against the stop-loss policy by considering the costs of war and sense of betrayal felt by U.S. troops. It does this in several ways, some of which are more effective than others. While Michelle is a great sidekick -- tough, smart, and angry -- the fact that the male troops' traumatized reactions are basically a collector's set of stereotypes is unfortunate; Brandon is the anguished moral center, Steve the gung-ho hero, etc. Similarly, Brandon and Michelle's travels are punctuated by encounters with obvious "lessons": a crew of punks, a family dealing with a son's death, a veteran on the run who can't look after his sick child.
Despite these structural issues, Stop-Loss offers dense, compellingly detailed situations, especially concerning the young soldiers' efforts to rethink what it means to be men. With its focus on the unhealthy rituals of manhood and male community that are encouraged by the military (specifically, a fear of otherness that translates into racism and misogyny), the film recalls Peirce's Boys Don't Cry, a remarkable excavation of gender roles and bonds. As Steve can't face life away from his comrades (and with Michelle), Brandon agonizes over deserting his friends. Again and again, the film shows how the devastating experiences and impossible expectations of young men in wartime are unjustified. These problems are only compounded by the backdrop of the war in Iraq, where, flashback scenes reveal, troops are under-equipped, under-trained, and unguided. If this message requires pretty young actors to get out to an audience, so be it.