Film Review: The Yellow Birds

A hard-working cast and grippingly tragic sensibility nearly keep this fractured Iraq War drama from falling apart in the final stretch.
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The entertainment media is falling all over themselves right now to point out just how much Solo has underperformed at the box office, laying differing degrees of blame at Alden Ehrenreich’s feet. They will most likely miss out on the fact that Ehrenreich’s real star turn this year is in Alexandre Moors’ The Yellow Birds. Although this auteurist war movie is at the other end of the spectrum artistically from Ron Howard’s box-checking assembly-line heist flick, the two movies share similar flaws in that they both show how misguided direction can strand hard-working actors hitting all the right notes.

In this adaptation of Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers’ National Book Award-finalist novel, Ehrenreich plays Brandon, a 20-year-old who signs up for the Army for no good reason. He makes an unlikely friendship with Daniel (Tye Sheridan), aka “Murphy,” a shy 18-year-old who seems years younger and is even less constitutionally formed for combat than Brandon. The boot-camp buddies fall into the dark orbit of their sergeant, Sterling (a crackpot Jack Huston), a tweaky veteran given to arcane pronouncements and muttering Old Testament verses while pouring salt into an Iraqi field. It’s clear from the start that Sterling is bad news and Murph doomed.

The hodgepodge screenplay by David Lowery and R.F.I. Porto starts things off with Brandon’s prematurely aged narration lacing the story in dark threads of exhausted mourning: “The war,” he says, “tried to kill us every day…it just took.” After that, it flashes forward and back from patrol, garrison and combat scenes in Iraq dissociated from time or place—though there is a dankly ironic comment about the soldiers being near the Garden of Eden—to Brandon’s post-tour existence back in America. This is mostly taken up by sleeping, nightmares, raging at his cracking-under-the-strain mother (Toni Collette), and ducking the questions of Murph’s mother (Jennifer Aniston), who made him promise to look after her son, who has now been declared missing.

This type of narrative volleying is a difficult balancing act for any director to handle. It proves off-putting here almost from the start. But helping Moors along somewhat is the anchoring presence of Ehrenreich, whose natural charisma is channeled into a nervy springwire tension, and Sheridan, who makes Murph not just needy and emotional, but someone driven by a deep inner need to succeed at his new chosen profession. Once the soul-deadening catastrophes of insurgent warfare—the nerve-shredding mortar attacks and ambushes, their squad gunning down a car filled of civilians—start chipping away at Murph’s thin veneer of adolescent confidence, his raw emotionality becomes like an open wound affecting not just him but Brandon.

Moors’ glum and understated style that he used to such great effect in Blue Caprice is not the best fit for this material. He could likely have directed a great story about the wounds of war and the soldiers who can never quite return home no matter how much they want to. At times he does suffuse The Yellow Birds with an effectively mournful darkness. But the story’s varied elements of urban combat, back-home recovery and mystery ultimately get away from Moors, particularly the flat-feeling denouement about what really happened to Murph. Because Brandon and Murph’s friendship was related so powerfully earlier in the movie, having the third act hinge on the all-too-obvious yet still not quite believable crack-up of Sterling comes off as an unnecessary twist. It’s true that war ravages the bodies and souls of young men and women; tragedy doesn’t always require complexity.