Flitting between events set before, during, and after the Iraq War, Alexandre Moors’s The Yellow Birds is a confused film about a confused subject. It tells the story of Brandon Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich) and Daniel Murphy (Tye Sheridan), two young soldiers who befriend each other on a tour of duty in Iraq. They must navigate not only the horrors of conflict, but the command of their unhinged superior, Sergeant Sterling (Jack Huston), who talks of ghosts and judgment as he walks a battlefield, ritualistically salting the earth.
The clamor of conflict is intercut with its aftermath, as Murphy’s mother, Maureen (Jennifer Aniston), seeks information about her son’s MIA status. Bartle’s mother, Amy (Toni Collette), meanwhile, has to deal with her son’s PTSD-haunted return. Moors puts us in Bartle’s mind, a place where the corrosive agents of his experience prey on our nerves—as the muffled buzzing of insects warps into the whip of bullets. The film’s battles are a febrile nightmare: night-vision cameras cast nocturnal skirmishes in jungle hues, tracer rounds light up like lasers, and choppers unleash salvos of hell-fire missiles. It all looks frighteningly like a video game. And all the while lingering dissolves merge the headlights and freeways of home with the searchlights and causeways of foreign soil, as Humvees rumble through the frame.
This juxtaposition is suggestive of Bartle’s state of mind—as he’s only half returned home. “It was hard to tell who was alive and who was just a ghost,” he says in narration. One scene has him take up refuge on a mattress in the edgelands outside his home, unable to face his mother. But Ehrenreich doesn’t summon the quiet power of Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker, confounded by row upon row of breakfast cereal in a supermarket isle, or Jake Gyllenhaal in Jarhead, staring out of his living room window at a new, alien battlefield. Ehrenreich is a handsome cipher, likeable on a good day, perhaps, but absent. Sheridan, meanwhile, feels as dazed as his character, slowly scrambled by the trauma all about him. He vanishes between the film’s layers. And who better to track Murphy’s whereabouts than that erstwhile “lost boy” Jason Patric? As Captain Anderson, it falls to him to talk to wounded parents and sift through the rubble at home. Patric, a winsome heartthrob with a vacant smile, is a reflection of Ehrenreich across a 25-year divide.
There’s a hollow quality to The Yellow Birds. The film feels as if it were a filleted version of Kevin Powers’s book, from which it’s adapted. Stray lines of the author’s poetic prose—“The war tried to kill us in the spring”—shine through amid the film’s choppy chronology and murky tone. The supporting cast members orbit like satellites without any import. Collette has a knack of playing mothers under tremendous strain, but here she’s banished to peripheral scenes and given little to do but wring her hands with worry. Aniston, who played, with stultified grace, a woman so utterly trapped by sadness in The Good Girl, gets the same treatment. Even Jack Huston’s sergeant falls flat; toward the end, the man sheds his Kurtzian aura, lapsing into a banal showcase of warrior-crazy that grows increasingly tiresome.
You may want for something to hold on to, but Sheridan and Ehrenreich slip through the fingers, both seeming uninterested and restless to move on to other projects: Sheridan to the Steven Spielberg pop-culture behemoth Ready Player One, and Ehrenreich to a galaxy far, far away in Ron Howard’s Solo: A Star Wars Story. At one point in The Yellow Birds, before attempting to capture a city, a camera-waving interviewer asks, “You really think this is the most important thing you’ll ever do?” The two squint back into the camera. Sheridan’s reply: “I dunno.” Ehrenreich’s: “I fucking hope not.” Quite.