I cried several times during Stop-Loss. I usually hate war movies, but something about this one really moved me. I’ve talked to a couple of friends who hated it—one even walked out—but it really got to me.

We’re introduced to a group of friends/soldiers, including:

  • Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) – the leader and All-American guy
  • Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum) – goofy, sniper-caliber second-in-command who’s a little too impulsive
  • Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) – the guys’ underdog-y friend
  • Rico Rodriguez (Victor Rasuk) – a cocky, handsome big talker

Things go wrong during a really tense and horrific mission and several members of King’s squad are killed or injured, but luckily, they’re all being sent home soon. For Brandon and Steve, this is the end of their tours of duty, and they talk about what they’ll do back in “the real world.”

We see them readjusting to being home, including Steve’s strained relationship with fiancé Michele (Abbie Cornish, an outstanding performance) and the way they all seem to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Tommy gets drunker and drunker, picks a fight and gets thrown out by his wife (Mamie Gummer, Meryl Streep’s daughter. She doesn’t get to do much acting other than an okay crying scene and has a strange face.); Steve strips down to his underwear, hits Michele and digs a foxhole in her front yard.

Brandon’s able to hold them together, though, and they all go back to base where our two main heroes expect to get out. It all goes to hell when Brandon discovers he’s been stop-lossed, i.e. involuntarily forced to extend his tour of duty, which could be up to 11 more years.

He resists and escapes custody and has to decide if he’ll submit to what he considers an unfair policy or if he’ll live the rest of his life as a fugitive. His father wants him to return; his mother (the awesome Linda Emond) offers to drive him over the border herself. The rest of the film details his attempts, aided by Michele, to get someone to help him fight this.

Along the way, they stop at the house of one of the soldiers killed in the combat we witnessed at the beginning of the film and they learn, from the angry brother of the dead soldier, about a lawsuit some soldiers are bringing against the Army. Laurie Metcalf plays the grieving mother but I didn’t recognize her for a full five minutes after she first came onscreen—that’s how much she disappears into this role: no goofiness, no Jackie-ism.

As Brandon and Michele move towards Washington D.C. then New York, they encounter thieves, fellow fugitives and even sympathetic friends while Brandon deals with his own PTSD.

They stop at a veterans’ hospital where Rico, horribly injured in the opening combat, has been brought from overseas, courtesy of Brandon’s request. He’s missing his legs and an arm; his eyes have been damaged so that they’re silvery and unseeing. Still, he retains his spirit as he flirts with Michele and has a man-to-man talk with Brandon about the unfairness of the stop-loss policy. Rasuk handles his scenes amazingly, never lapsing into self-pity, but still managing to show that his cocky, jokey character is concealing enormous depths of pain.

Still, he says, if he were able, he would go back over to rejoin his brothers in arms—and if he were to be killed, at least his family would get green cards. That tension—the fact that these young men know they’re in harm’s way and could die at any time, but still love the feeling of brotherhood and purpose the Army gives them—gives the film its most powerful angle.

It’s definitely not an anti-war or anti-military movie—it’s very pro-soldier, as clichéd as that might sound. Kimberly Peirce knows that these soldiers all have different reasons for signing up and staying (Steve gives up his chance to marry Michele to have a career in the Army because he has more of a future there, for example), and it doesn’t judge them.

Everything ends on a powerful, ambivalent note, where Brandon faces the ultimate decision: give up his life and all his family and friends in exchange for freedom in Canada or Mexico, or return to his duty and possibly die under fire, or end up more emotionally, psychologically (and physically) damaged than he already is.

I won’t spoil the ending, but there’s a moment at the end where Brandon’s mother, faced with his decision, puts on a brave face, only to have it crumble at the last second as she turns away, devastated. A little moment like that, showing the emotional fallout suffered by the families of the soldiers, sticks with you long after the film’s over—these are real men and women with real lives facing the unthinkable.

The movie’s considerable power for me stemmed from its focus on the characters themselves. Most impressive of all was Abbie Cornish as Michele, the small-town girl who reaches the end of her patience for being a military “wife.” She regrets lacking the necessary strength to share her husband and life with the Army, but she faces her altered destiny with a clear-eyed bravery and courage that I found the most inspiring of all. Slow to speak, deep-voiced and unshakeable, Michele was the character I most admired of them all—a quintessential American who, although she never enlists herself, finds her life, friends, town and prospects shaped by the presence and the need for—good and bad—the armed services.

I read a comment online that claimed this movie glamorizes desertion. It doesn’t. It puts a human face on a handful of soldiers caught in a horrible situation.

Boys Don’t Cry was one of the most powerful movies I have ever seen. This one doesn’t have quite the same strength, but it’s in the same vein and I highly recommend this movie.

Visit the movie’s website and its website that shares soldiers’ (and their families’) real stories.