The Yellow Birds, 2018.
Directed by Alexandre Moors.
Starring Alden Ehrenreich, Tye Sheridan, Jack Huston, Toni Collette, Jason Patric, Olivia Crocicchia, Renée Willett, Lee Tergesen, Aylin Tezel, Robert Pralgo, Robert Beck, Mikey Collins, Gershwyn Eustache Jnr, Carter Redwood, Wilbur Fitzgerald, Carrie Wampler, Rhoda Griffis, and Jennifer Aniston.
Two young soldiers, Bartle (21) and Murph (18) navigate the terrors of the Iraq war under the command of the older, troubled Sergeant Sterling. All the while, Bartle is tortured by a promise he made to Murph’s mother before their deployment.
There is an emotional tale of war trauma, grief, and lost souls to be found in Alexandre Moor’s sophomore feature The Yellow Birds (based on the novel by Kevin Powers which more intriguingly is co-adapted by A Ghost Story director David Lowery) struggling to land with the impact of a mortar strike, and the dry execution likely has nothing to do with the fact that this is about the 7,000th Iraq war movie to come out in the past decade.
The heart of the story comes from a pair of outstanding performances from indie darling Tye Sheridan and our new Han Solo Alden Ehrenreich (it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a middling reception isn’t the only reason this film is finally releasing over a year after its debut at Sundance 2017, but rather trying to add slightly more buzz a few weeks coming off of the star drastically skyrocketing his celebrity appeal) who sell the standard loss of innocence formula. One of the most affecting elements of the narrative is that both of these young soldiers have enlisted for shaky reasons and don’t exactly have the most fulfilling or complete family.
The script takes a rewarding approach to utilize two different timelines (during the military service and the aftermath depicting Ehrenreich’s PTSD-ridden, suicidally depressed, angry, broken shell of a man) with the reason being that something unclear and mysterious but clearly tragic happened to Tye Sheridan. Unfortunately, this aspect is sold a bit too much as an investigation drawing attention away from the very real psychologically devastating consequences of surviving shell-shocking battle situations, but it also allows the mothers of the boys (played by a convincingly distraught Jennifer Aniston and an increasingly frustrated Toni Collette) the chance to interact with one another, which is a welcome addition as far too frequently military features can feel like a vehicle exclusively for men when viewing how the events affect loved ones back home from significant others to parents can be equally fascinating. In particular, Toni Collette has a couple of dynamite exchanges trying to reach out to her son with concerns about his mental well-being.
The problem with The Yellow Birds is not with any of these strong performances, as there simply isn’t enough to make audiences care. An important plot point deals with Tye Sheridan crushing on a medic, and without spoiling anything, it ends up being one of the reasons he becomes so emotionally distant and removed from all those around him, wishing he could erase this part of his life that he signed up for and just disappear. However, too much of the material in Iraq feels like a patchwork collection of scenes meant to drive the plot forward without actually earning the drama. Also disappointing are the brief outbursts of gunfire, as the sound design and production design is efficient but the action itself is largely forgettable. If a character gets shot it is highly probable you won’t mind. At least there are some eye-catching visuals, such as a shot of a group of troops patrolling through a vast landscape underneath the pitch black night sky.
Very briefly, I would also like to address the elephant in the room that The Yellow Birds is admittedly one of those war movies that is only concerned with the lives of American soldiers, presenting everyone else as expendable. There is a debate to be had about the rights and wrongs of this treatment, but truthfully, the film already has enough characters and not enough time to go around fleshing out others from well-meaning natives to nefarious terrorists. It is what it is, which is an exploration of two young adults broken by their traumatizing experiences out in the field.
All that said, there is something deeply unsettling about the trajectory of the arcs for both of these soldiers, and in the end, I was moved just barely enough to give The Yellow Birds a passing grade. Anyone that has ever gotten to know me knows I’m obsessed (still) with the video game franchise Metal Gear Solid which contains an incredible quote claiming that “love can bloom anywhere, even on a battlefield”; that’s basically what happens in The Yellow Birds but is the one area the movie badly needed to further explore. As it stands, where the film begins and ends is poetically heartbreaking.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com