Review: The Yellow Birds (Sundance) starring Alden Ehrenreich
PLOT: Two young soldiers, Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich) and Murph (Tye Sheridan) try to survive a violent tour of duty in the Iraq War under the supervision of a battle-hardened sergeant (Jack Huston). When Bartle eventually returns home, he discovers that his battle has only begun, with Murph’s mother (Jennifer Aniston) demanding answers regarding her son’s mysterious disappearance.
REVIEW: THE YELLOW BIRDS is easily the most frustrating film I’ve seen at this year’s Sundance. Half brilliant, and half dull, director Alexandre Moors (BLUE CAPRICE) has made a visually stunning war film, but also one that’s bogged down in a thoroughly routine mystery and too much familiar home-front drama.
Luckily, even the inconsistencies are redeemed by the performances, specifically that of lead Alden Ehrenreich. Having recently broke out with HAIL, CAESAR!, as well as being the new Han Solo, this is a showcase turn. A working-class Virginia guy who enlisted out of a mix of boredom and aimlessness, he finds meaning in his duty through his relationship with the sweet-natured Murph (Tye Sheridan), who’s such a wide-eyed innocent their tough sarge demands Bartle watch over him - something the latter takes as his scared duty.
Structurally, the movie criss-crosses between their violent tour and Bartle’s return home, sans Murph, whose fate is so obscure it’s driven his mom (Jennifer Aniston) half-mad with worry. This is another aspect of THE YELLOW BIRDS that doesn’t quite work, with too much time spent on Aniston trying to find out what happened to her son, which involves enlisting the aid of a sympathetic CID officer (Jason Patric - in a role very similar to the one he played in IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH). Likewise, too much emphasis is placed on Bartle’s mom (Toni Collette) who tries to connect with her mentally scarred son.
Given the power of the war scenes, it’s hard not to wish the entire film had been devoted to the tour in Iraq. This is based on a well-received novel by Kevin Powers, himself an Iraq War vet, and adapted by R.F.I Porto and AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS director David Lowery. Reviews of the book suggests that the motivation behind the mystery is more explicit on the page, and the big failing of the film is that even when Murph’s fate is revealed, Bartle’s decision to stay silent is inexplicable. At 110 minutes, it also feels overstuffed, and half of the home-front scenes could have been cut without effecting the film too much.
Nevertheless, what works in THE YELLOW BIRDS works well. Ehrenreich is a compelling lead, and Sheridan evokes a gentleness that promises a bright future for this former child actor. Jack Huston also has a great showcase, far superior to the recent BEN-HUR as the half-mad Sarge whose motivations are obscure, but has his redeeming qualities.
Aniston’s performance will likely feature heavily into how the film is sold by whatever company picks it up, and she does great work, even if her role feels unnecessarily expanded, as does Collette’s. This is about the soldiers and they should have carried their own movie. When they’re allowed to do this, THE YELLOW BIRDS works, but whenever the perspective changes, the movie feels formulaic. It’s uneven and imperfect, but what’s good is very good, making this, ultimately, worth seeing.