So, I hate admitting this, but now every time I watch Alden Ehrenreich in a movie I start imagining what he’s going to be like as Han Solo. I can’t help it. But this only lasts a few minutes before I’m sitting there thinking, “Boy, this guy has it.”
The Yellow Birds, which premiered Saturday at the Sundance Film Festival, is the first time I’ve seen Ehrenreich in a true starring role. What I’ve noticed over the last year is he’s almost a chameleon with his voice inflections from role to role. What he provides here is vastly different than what we saw him do in, say, the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! I have no doubt that Ehrenreich went into his audition for Han Solo and did a voice and swagger we haven’t heard from him yet. This is what makes Ehrenreich so compelling as an actor. This is someone who can transform himself. I have no doubt he will win an Academy Award at some point in his career.
In Alexandre Moors’ The Yellow Birds (based on Kevin Powers’ book of the same name), Ehrenreich plays Brandon Bartle, a 20-year-old from Virginia who enlists in the Army during the Iraq War. The Yellow Birds has been kind of billed at Sundance as “the Iraq War movie,” but even though a large portion of the film takes place in Iraq, it doesn’t feel altogether like a war movie. It feels more like a movie with a mystery. The Iraq scenes are shown in flashback after Bartle returns to Virginia a very different human being than he arrived. And Ehrenreich almost seems like two different people, transforming from the confident soldier, to the depressed and volatile man comes back, one his mother (Toni Collette) barely recognizes.
The aforementioned mystery surrounds what happens to Bartle’s best friend in the army, Daniel Murphy (Tye Sheridan). As we see in the flashbacks, Daniel (who is referred to as “Murph”), becomes increasingly erratic as he learns to hate his life in Iraq. He mentions at one point he just wants to go home, live alone, and never admit to anyone he was ever in the army. In the scenes that take place after Bartle arrives home, we know Murph is missing in action and his mother (Jennifer Aniston, who is great and playing a role we’ve never quite scene from her before) isn’t getting any answers from the army. Plus, there’s an officer from the Army’s criminal investigations division who really wants to have a word with Bartle, who by this point is living on the street and is suicidal.
Now, the problem with centering an entire film like this around the mystery of “What happened to Murph” is, well, there better be a real payoff at the end. And I’m obviously not going to reveal the ending, but let’s just say I didn’t find the payoff satisfactory. Put it this way: I have a lot of questions. And not questions that the movie leaves because the ending is vague as to what happened – it’s not vague; it’s completely spelled out what occurred – but more that I have questions about character actions and motivations.
But even though The Yellow Birds doesn’t stick the landing, it’s the kind of movie that’s perfect for Ehrenreich to show off his range as he gears up to be a Movie Star. It’s crazy, in two years he will be one of the most famous actors working. But right now, he’s still “making his bones,” so to speak. From a strategic standpoint, The Yellow Birds is a perfect choice for him – and it’s easy to see why the powers that be at Lucasfilm decided to anoint him a Movie Star.
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