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Review: 'The Yellow Birds' treads familiar war themes

Posted Tuesday, August 14, 2018 at 10:38 AM Central
Last updated Tuesday, August 14, 2018 at 10:39 AM Central

by John Couture

"War is hell."
- William Tecumseh Sherman

We have known the evils of war ever since General Sherman famously quipped his comparison during the American Civil War. And yet, it's probably safe to say that similar indictments of conflict have been shared since the dawn of time.

Given that, it's hardly surprising that the latest in a long list of films dealing with the ongoing Iraq War would rely heavily on the familiar battlegrounds of those that preceded it. The Yellow Birds doesn't shed any new evidence on the evils of war, nor does it reinvent the genre, but it does remind us that we are still ensnarled in a conflict halfway across the world, no matter what former President Bush said about the mission being over.

The premise behind this latest film is simple. Two young soldiers go off to war, but only one returns. Questions abound around the fate of the missing soldier and the lasting effects that war has upon all of us.

First and foremost, the film features an amazing young and experienced cast that only helps to elevate the movie. Alden Ehrenreich might still be stinging from all the negative criticism he drew for Star Wars: Solo, but his performance here reminds us that he is quite gifted and his best years are ahead of him. Likewise, the young Tye Sheridan continues to build upon his strong resumé with his sadly short-lived performance in this film.

For me though, the real scene-stealer is Jack Huston. He has had the sort of career where you recognize him but just can't place him. He finally got his starring role as the titular character in the Ben-Hur remake, but his career launch was scrubbed much like the box office performance of that film.

Jack's performance in The Yellow Birds reminds us that he has great potential to deliver iconic performances. While the movie suffers due to a slow, plodding plot that never seems to catch up to the acting performances the talented cast turns in, the film hits its high points whenever Jack is on screen. Among the other standout performances in the film, Toni Collette and Jennifer Aniston perform admirably as the mothers of the two soldiers caught up in the very real tragedies of a war that they never asked for.

The Yellow Birds trades in familiar war film tropes. In fact, one of the early scenes of them walking through a shelled wasteland will bring back a very particular scene at the end of Full Metal Jacket. There are various other homages out there both old and new and it's near impossible not to compare it to The Hurt Locker as the close quarters fighting and shooting style is very similar.

And yet, the film doesn't make enough of an effort to blaze its own path. In the end, the movie just feels too familiar that we start to question its very existence. What sets this film apart from the countless other stories about the Iraq War? There is a central mystery as to the fate of Tye Sheridan that brings a resolution to the film, but you have to decide for yourself if it satisfying or not.

The Yellow Birds is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.