In the past decade and a half, there’s been an inescapable wave of cookie-cutter Iraq war movies, many of which simply rehashing the tonal exploits of the influx of Vietnam-era cinema not all that long ago. Casual disciples of Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket hit many of the same familiar notes, half-heartedly exploring the atrocities of war, the horrible acts it forces soldiers to commit, and the harrowing toll it takes on troops returning home from the battlefield. It is said that “Good artists copy; great artists steal,” but director Alexandre Moors (Blue Caprice, Cruel Summer) takes the quotation even one step further with The Yellow Birds, by simply regurgitating clichéd plot beats onto the screen.
The film opens with Brandon Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich), a 21-year-old veteran telling his version of an open criminal investigation. We see this world through his eyes, and he warns the viewer early on that his memories are jumbled, so the film is told in nonlinear strokes, bouncing between his time in basic training, his time in the field, and his rocky transition to civilian life back home in Virginia. A fellow member of his outfit, the fresh-faced rookie Daniel Murphy (Tye Sheridan), is missing, presumed dead, and it becomes immediately evident that Bartle knows more than he’s letting on.
“A fellow member of his outfit, the fresh-faced rookie…missing, presumed dead, and…evident that Bartle knows more than he’s letting on…”
It’s difficult to believe that this script was penned by David Lowery, whose films such as A Ghost Story have felt so unique in the past. The Yellow Birds reads like a slapdash attempt to meet a forgotten deadline. The source material, a 2012 novel written by combat veteran Kevin Powers, undoubtedly offers more insights into the minds of its characters and boasts the grace and authenticity of someone who’s been plagued by the aftermath of the burden of military service. Its big screen adaptation, however, gives each of its players only one defining characteristic, hindering them from reaching anything resembling genuine human emotion.
In its final moments, as all of its loose ends are quickly resolved, we are given our first real taste of narrative ambition from the film, but as soon as it begins to reach for a deeper conversation, the credits being to roll. Instead of a case study in PTSD, the previous 90 minutes had been a wild goose chase, a strained mystery without any real stakes. We are sent on a quest to find out what happened to Murphy, when the focus would have been much more wisely placed on Bartle’s fragile response to his connection to his fallen comrade. Unfortunately, Moors is too preoccupied with recreating classic war movie iconography to check in on his damaged characters.
“…authenticity of someone who’s been plagued by the aftermath of the burden of military service…”
Framed by Daniel Landin, the gifted cinematographer behind Under the Skin and The Uninvited, The Yellow Birds does make the most of a murky river or a smoldering battleground, but there is little depth behind its reliable imagery. Almost none of the film’s missteps are exceptionally lousy, but that’s because it doesn’t take enough risks to allow itself the opportunity to truly fail. It is perfectly content to uniformly fall in line with others of its ilk, which does little more than remind its audience of the superior films they could be watching in its place.
The Yellow Birds (2018) Directed by Alexandre Moors. Written By David Lowery. Starring Tye Sheridan, Alden Ehrenreich, Toni Collette, Jason Patric, Jack Huston, Jennifer Aniston, Lee Tergesen, Aylin Tezel.
5 out of 10