Actor Alden Ehrenreich is a star in the making, despite some behind-the-scenes carping about his work in the ill-fated Solo: A Star Wars Story. He’s a natural lead with casually handsome good looks but also a chameleon in the manner of many great character actors, so much so that it took me a moment to recognize that it was Ehrenreich I was watching in Alexandre Moors’ elusive and uneven war drama The Yellow Birds. In it, young soldiers Bartle (Ehrenreich) and Murphy (Tye Sheridan) face the unceremonious cruelties of Afghanistan deployment; through flashbacks and time shifts, we know that only Bartle returns and that he may be somehow responsible for Murphy being classified MIA. Ehrenreich and Sheridan give it their best, but Moors and writers David Lowery and R.F.I. Porto disappoint with an ending that isn’t supported thematically by the story building to it. It makes me wonder if Ehrenreich is ever going to get to lead on a project with all cylinders firing.
Bartle and Murphy are fresh-faced boys — Murphy is 18 and has never had to shave before. They goof and bumble like high school kids, miming gunfights and pretending to die, only they’re holding real, military-issued weapons. We send literal children to die for vague causes. And while Bartle becomes hardened by suddenly being surrounded by death and destruction, Murphy’s tenuous grasp on reality wears thin. Meanwhile, both young men have mothers waiting for them at home, and we soon discover that perhaps Bartle’s ambiguously troubled childhood with his manic mom (Toni Collette) has better prepared him for compartmentalized coping.
Moors endeavors to convey the relentless debasement of humanity that occurs in endless battle — the boys see an innocent couple gunned down in their car, a man beheaded and turned into a “body bomb” — but we’ve seen all of this before, more persuasively, in far better films. What Moors offers that’s new is a kind of unfolding mystery, as we come to find what really happened to Murphy in the war zone. Too bad the pacing is botched and that the whole narrative becomes one long dirge of “and then, and then, and then.”
It pains me to think of the brutal clarity of the prose of the Kevin Powers novel on which this was based. (You can read the first two exemplary paragraphs here.) The film never approaches the book’s lucid coherence of purpose. In Powers’ work, catastrophic events are blunt but sharply drawn, allowing for a more fluid, faster pace, where you experience war in a succession of fleeting, heartbreaking impressions. Moors, meanwhile, digs his heels into each scene but doesn’t squeeze any more emotion from them than if he had abridged each to its most poignant line. The best moments of the film come toward the end when Moors and his editor, Joe Klotz, aren’t precious with material and cut forward and backward in time with precision. Even then, The Yellow Birds relies a little too heavily on the skill of Ehrenreich and Sheridan to fill in the missing story gaps.