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THE YELLOW BIRDS Is a Potent War Drama That Wants to Be Something Worse (Sundance Review)

THE YELLOW BIRDS Is a Potent War Drama That Wants to Be Something Worse (Sundance Review)

Across its vast array of cinematic portraits, war has stirred up many different kinds of things in many different kinds of people. And despite the screen’s epic precedent for battle-born torment and corrosion, there is something novel about Sundance’s The Yellow Birds’ approach to its own post-combat focus: regret. Though we may not be able to call Tye Sheridan’s philosophical 180 or Alden Ehrenreich’s paralyzing remorse entirely new territory for the war movie genre, there’s certainly something unusual about the agency with which The Yellow Birds attacks these bouts of trauma.

This may derive, at least in part, from the film’s willingness to dive deep into its subject matter without regard for the obligatory nod to military heroism. Unburdened by any apparent ideological agenda—a rarity for films about contemporaneous warfare—The Yellow Birds freely pumps up and tears apart its central soldiers, rendering all the more vivid its account of their communal internal shakedown.

We see the mission carried out distinctly, though unanimously effectively, in all three main characters. Most pronounced is the breaking of grunt Murph (Sheridan), who comes to the army hoping to “do good,” only to lose his grip on this vague ideation when the terrors of the trenches set in. Leaps in chronology allow a simultaneous study of the somewhat more seasoned Brandon Bartle’s (Ehrenreich) and increasingly mad Sergeant Sterling’s (Jack Huston) festering obsession with everything they left back on the battlefield—one thing in particular, as the movie makes clear once its time-hopping conceit sets in.

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This device, though used to great effect in exploring pre-, circa-, and post-war psychology side by side, does lend to what is perhaps The Yellow Birds’ biggest flaw: its ultimate decision to be a mystery thriller rather than a straightforward drama. Soon after introducing its cast of characters (which also includes Murph’s and Brandon’s long-suffering mothers, played respectively by Jennifer Aniston and Toni Collette), The Yellow Birds bounds eagerly into into the business of narrative manipulation, setting up a long drive of suspense over secrets that the U.S. Army, or maybe just some of its constituents, have been keeping from civilians aching to know what really happened overseas. Suspense may indeed accumulate, though at the cost of The Yellow Birds’ sincerer focus—that being the boys’ pain.

Without the vivid communication of such torment provided not only by Sheridan and Ehrenreich, but also a flavorfully mortifying Huston and a rattling Aniston, the prioritization of suspense and surprise might otherwise prove fatal to The Yellow Birds, whose strength lies not in any big reveal (let me tell you right here—there is nothing particularly shocking about the direction this movie takes, no matter what its buildup would have you believe) but in the emotional decay of the characters en route. Admittedly, the movie’s tempered ending makes a few strides toward realigning its central focus thereupon. However, if Yellow Birds had kept true to its initial promise of telling a no-holds-barred story about wartime regrets, it’d be something a lot more interesting and a good deal more more unique.

Rating: 3 out of 5 burritos

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Images: Sundance Institute


Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor for Nerdist. Find him on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.

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