Actor Alden Ehrenreich is both a natural lead with casually handsome good looks but also a chameleon in the manner of many great character actors. So much so that it took me a moment to recognize that it was Ehrenreich I was watching in Alexandre Moors' elusive and uneven war drama The Yellow Birds. In it, young soldiers Bartle (Ehrenreich) and Murphy (Tye Sheridan) face the unceremonious cruelties of Afghanistan deployment; through flashbacks and time shifts, we know that only Bartle returns and that he may be somehow responsible for Murphy being classified MIA. Ehrenreich and Sheridan give their best, but Moors and writers David Lowery and R.F.I. Porto disappoint with an ending that isn't supported thematically by the story building to it.
Bartle and Murphy are fresh-faced boys -- Murphy is 18 and has never had to shave before. They goof and bumble like high school kids, miming gunfights and pretending to die, only they're holding real, military-issued weapons. We send literal children to die for vague causes. And while Bartle becomes hardened by suddenly being surrounded by death and destruction, Murphy's tenuous grasp on reality wears thin.
Moors endeavors to convey the relentless debasement of humanity that occurs in endless battle, but we've seen all of this before, more persuasively, in far better films. What Moors offers that's new is a kind of unfolding mystery, as we come to find what really happened to Murphy in the war zone. Too bad that the pacing is botched and that the whole narrative becomes one long dirge of "and then, and then, and then."