‘The Yellow Birds’ (2017) | Sundance Review

At this point, I think we know war is hell. However, as long as governments keep deciding to send people to go kill another group of people, this is a sentiment we need to keep being reminded of. When The Yellow Birds tackles the psychological trauma one is dealt by going into combat, it paints a devastating picture that would deter anyone from joining the military ranks. Unfortunately, the film feels like this couldn’t possibly be enough for a movie and decides to shove in this mystery about a missing soldier that solely feels there in order for plot instances to occur, and the resolution of which is entirely unsatisfying.

Plenty of wayward youths enlist in the military. Among them is Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich), a twenty year-old son of a single mother (Toni Collette) who wants to get out of the rundown place of his growing up. What he wants to do, he doesn’t know, but the military seems like a decent enough idea to pass the time. Two years his junior is Murphy (Tye Sheridan), a military son who intends to do his duty before heading to college. During training, Sergeant Sterling (Jack Huston), a hot-headed, troubled guy, shoves these two together to look after one another while out in Iraq.

The film is structured in four segments, and while the focus is on the named segment, The Yellow Birds weaves back and forth in time in all of them, showing us moments that relate to whatever the segment may be. In the second segment “Homecoming,” we become privy to the fact that Murphy has gone missing while on tour, but his mother (Jennifer Aniston) keeps receiving letters dated after he was reported missing. The military, for suspicious reasons, is keeping the investigation very hush-hush, not willing to give up a sliver of information to her.

The Yellow Birds

Let me start with what works. When it comes to Ehrenreich’s Bartle dealing with the horrors and unusual goings-on of war, it’s gripping. From the unexplained sudden onset of narcolepsy (even in battle) to his preference to sleep on a dirty mattress under an overpass after returning home, every moment of his psychological shakeup feels authentic, and Ehrenreich, whose best work up until now hangs on his charm and humor, is up to the task of delivering that trauma. Equally acquitted to the task is Sheridan, who deals with his own troubles in a completely different, yet totally believable way.

But I have to talk about this missing Murphy storyline, and if you are wondering, no, Jennifer Aniston is not the issue here. In fact, she is arguably doing the best work of her career here. For one, as a mystery, it is not compelling. The script by David Lowery and R.F.I. Porto waits so long before giving you any sort of clue as to what happened it drains out any interest. Secondly, when we do end up finding out what happens, the result isn’t shocking or surprising in any way. A mystery’s solution should end with a band, not a thud. Thirdly, it totally undercuts the true pain soldier’s endure. What the film tells us is what happened to these guys and what they did is wholly unique unto themselves. PTSD and other psychological issues soldiers who merely saw standard battlefront stuff deal with everyday is minimized. The universality is stripped away. Usually, I crave specificity, but this goes so far it transforms into something almost no one can really relate to.

Director Alexandre Moors puts it together the best he can. The film is shot gorgeously, acted pitch perfectly, and has an emotional undercurrent that rings true. However, the mystery is so woven into the film from the its inception he can’t really do anything to help. Consequently, The Yellow Birds is sometimes quite moving and sometimes extremely frustrating. Strip it of plot contrivances and incidents, and we could have had an exquisite “war is hell” film. Instead, The Yellow Birds only tells us this and doesn’t have it sink into your bones.

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