Alexandre Moors had not directed a feature length film in four years, when he signed to direct Kevin Powers’ novel The Yellow Birds. The last film Moors directed was Blue Caprice, a film about the duo of snipers otherwise known as the Beltway Snipers who terrorized innocent people in and around Washington D.C. in 2002. The Yellow Birds is quite a departure from that film, but, even though it has been four years, Moors shows he knows what he is doing. He has not missed a beat. The Yellow Birds tells the story of two Army soldiers, Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich) and Murph (Tye Sheridan) who are sent off to Iraq. The two are friends but come from different worlds. Murph comes from a more affluent background with a doting mother, Maureen (Jennifer Aniston) and a father who had served in the Marines.
The Murphys take to Bartle who seems to shy away from his own mother, Amy (Toni Collette). She doesn’t seem to be a bad mother or a bad person, but clearly Bartle and Amy are on different pages in their lives. They still love each other as mother and son, but they are distant and don’t seem to have a lot in common. While over a Christmas dinner at the base before the two young men ship out, Maureen takes Bartle aside and makes him promise that if, God forbid, anything happens to her boy, to tell her first before she reads about it in the papers or gets a visit from the Army chaplain. He swears he will and off the two soldiers go.
While in Iraq they meet their immediate CO (commanding officer), Sergeant Sterling (Jack Huston) who is seems to be a proficient soldier but clearly he is masking some inner, emotional damage which sets Bartle on edge. During a firefight, Murph goes missing and only Sergeant Sterling and Bartle know the truth of Murph’s disappearance. Sterling and Bartle are rotated back to America and that is when the military opens a board of inquiry to look into the disappearance of Murph. Maureen is of course, devastated but wants to hear it first from Bartle who has taken up living in an abandoned factory. All the while investigators led by Captain Anderson (Jason Patric) are looking for Bartle and Sterling. Sterling is on the run living from place to place.
The Yellow Birds might sound like a heavy plot to endure but it is not. It pretty much is as simple as you think it is. Overall, this film has not been received well and I do not understand why. The Yellow Birds is nothing new to the war genre of films, but it is a powerful film with stellar performances from Aniston, Sheridan and yes, Ehrenreich who is a fantastic actor. I don’t care what people say about his delivery or his presence on screen. He has charisma and in The Yellow Birds, his performance is filled with sorrow and regret. Ehrenreich shows his acting chops and he has range and depth to do just about anything on screen.
The Yellow Birds does get to the bottom of what happened to Murph and it takes its time to get there, but I did not care. The acting in this film kept me in tune with the rest of the film. There are some battle scenes but overall this is a serious drama that mostly takes place back in America. The rest of the story is told in flashbacks including the whereabouts of Murph. Moors direction takes his time to unfold the story and the script, penned by David Lowery and R. F. I. Porto digs into the psyche of the soldiers but it does not trivialize their emotional and physical scars for cheap heart-tugging. They have respect for the characters and let them breathe into the story. What some will find boring, I found involving. Simply put, I cared about these characters from start to finish.
There are some characters that are underdeveloped, primarily Jason Patric’s Captain Anderson. He comes and goes and that is about all. He is simply there to eventually get Bartle to talk. The final scene in which Bartle reveals to Maureen what happened to her son is soul crushing but the acting by both is tremendous. There is however an intentionally underdeveloped relationship that Murph has with a young military nurse, Jenny (Carrie Wampler) which is very sweet and innocent. I say unintentionally underdeveloped because Murph is a shy kid and is rather smitten with her but prefers to admire her from afar. Ms. Wampler only has a couple of scenes but she is able to convey a genuine sense of kindness and compassion which is very endearing.
The Yellow Birds is not for everyone. It is a sad, dour and bleak film but it is supposed to be. However, it is not too depressing that it did not give me hope of some kind. Hope that one day these characters will see their way out of their pain, loss and morass of war. This is a respectful film for those who serve and what they deal with be it in the war zone or at home. Director Moors does a good job of juxtaposing how these characters seem to be more at home in a war zone than when they are back home. The Yellow Birds is a deeply affecting character study and on that level, this film soars.
The Yellow Birds – ****1/4 out of 5
The Yellow Birds – Rated R for graphic language, war violence and gore, brief nudity and sexual situations
The Yellow Birds – Run time is 94 minutes
The Yellow Birds is now playing in select cities, On Demand and Pay Subscription services. Check your local listings for times, locations and availability and pricing.