Kimberly Peirce's follow-up to her award-winning debut Boys Don't Cry, shows that many of her interests have remained even though the director might have taken nearly a decade to serve up a sophomore effort. Like her first film, Stop-Loss works best when dealing with the heightened emotions experienced by inarticulate blue-collar Americans. Ryan Philippe and Joseph Gordon-Levitt both shine when the screenplay gives them things to do, but not to say. They have both been emotionally wounded by their experiences in the Iraq War, and now that they're home they are unable to find a healthy release for their pent-up stress. When a third friend and fellow veteran sees his new marriage fall apart, the trio sits around with some fellow Texas good ol' boys, and uses the wedding gifts for target practice. It's an image that seems full of meaning, but this sequence is presented without any edge. Peirce seems unsure what she feels about these guys, even though she never questions their bravery or loyalty.
Stop-Loss is at its best when it doesn't quest for meaning. After a meandering but gently involving opening 40 minutes, Peirce's film becomes a series of speeches with Philippe's AWOL staff sergeant making his way to D.C. in order to see a senator who he believes will help him escape his fate of being stop-lossed, a loophole in the standard military contract that allows the army to call someone back into active duty in a time of war after one's military contract is supposedly complete. The film is at its best when it remains a small, gentle examination of one veteran's readjustment to being back home. When Peirce becomes more ambitious, when she wants to make a grand statement, she loses her way -- particularly with the script. Each character gets saddled at least once with a speech that hits the point too on the nose. Peirce's talents lie in recording the every-day mundane existence of seemingly average folks, and such modesty just doesn't fit with the grand themes the film wants to get at. Her protagonist is real clear about what he wants and why he wants it, but the movie itself isn't clear enough. Kimberly Peirce's first film seemed like everything good about American independent cinema, but, because her reach exceeds her grasp this time around, her long-awaited follow-up has all the telltale signs of a sophomore slump.