Sunday, February 17, 2013

Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree

In my last post, I mentioned working through some movies on my Netflix queue while staying home sick and wrote about Last Night. But as you may have surmised, that wasn't the only movie I watched while recuperating; I also viewed The Yellow Handkerchief, a movie that had been waiting patiently on my queue for some time.

In many ways based on the traditional folklore of the ex-convict hopeful to see a yellow ribbon tied round the ole' oak tree meaning that he's welcome home, The Yellow Handkerchief tells the story of Brett (William Hurt), a recently released convict who is uncertain if he can return to his lover May (Maria Bello), who is a complicated mix of tough-as-nails and incredibly fragile all rolled up into one. An odd series of circumstances leaves Brett traveling through Louisiana with a teenaged girl named Martine (Kristen Stewart) who oddly enough seems to look up to him as a father figure, and a young man named Gordy (Eddie Redmayne), a wanderer who takes a liking to Martine.

The movie's ending is fairly predictable, but it takes a meandering course to get there. Nearly all of Brett's story is told through a series of flashbacks interspersed with the current action. (And when I say "action," I mean evenly paced events. This is not an action flick. If you want that, go see the latest Die Hard film or whatever else Hollywood is churning out this month.) This is instead a rather quiet movie focused on just these four characters and not necessarily anything outside of them. That being said, the movie does provide for musings on larger themes like the nature of love and desire, loneliness, communication breakdowns, and so forth.

Because of the character-driven nature of this movie, the acting plays a huge role. Unimpressed by her dull and inspired acting in the Twilight saga and Speak, I was pleasantly surprised to find Kirsten Stewart palatable here. Her acting was not superb, but it was sufficient to do the Martine character justice. Maria Bello is fabulous as May, especially given that her character - while a driving motivation behind nearly all of Brett's actions - is not seen much in the movie except in the occasional flashbacks. Eddie Redmayne perfectly embodies the outcast "weirdo" Gordy, down to every last twitchy movement. And William Hurt carries the movie, conveying pathos in every scene despite his character's terseness. That's certainly not an easy feat. Apparently, Hurt actually spent time in a maximum-security prison to prepare himself for the role.

With little action and fairly limited dialogue from the main lead, the film trades in its best stock - cinematography. There's some great visuals throughout the movie as the trio traverse through the state on their road trip. As the movie is set in Louisiana in 2007, the visuals include many scenes of the storm-damaged state, which help provide some historic context even if Hurricane Katrina and its effects are not really something the movie overtly discusses much.

This next paragraph is going to contain some spoilers so skip ahead if you like to go into your movies without having the ending revealed to you in advance.

As I hinted at earlier, the movie's ending is Hollywood happy, but I found it left too many unanswered questions for my taste. Are May and Brett really going to be happy now? He needed the encouragement o the teens just to go see her, and he’s still very closed off and laconic, so will they be able to communicate properly in the future? What will ultimately happen to Martine? There’s the scene earlier, before she finds out Brett’s an ex-con, where she says she could leave with him and he could take care of her. It’s as though Martine could take the place of the child he and May lost, but realistically, on what planet could an ex-con (convicted of manslaughter no less, plus with a prior record) legally adopt her or obtain guardianship? Or will her father just never bother to check in on her again? This seems unlikely since he did already call once on their road trip and after that her phone died so he may well have been trying to contact her again without the viewer knowing. Despite Martine's claims that he is frequently absent, it seems a particularly harsh blow to think he will just let his 15-year-old daughter disappear without ever following up on her welfare. And, what will happen with her and Gordy? The relationship being established here is rocky at best - besides the baggage they both bring to it, they are young, he is a transient, etc.

Speaking of relationships, I find the relationships portrayed here very troubling. With both the adults and the teens, you have women who are uninterested and unwilling to become involved with these guys. Yet the men persist in hanging around and pushing unwanted sexual advances until eventually the women come around and agree to be with them. What kind of message is that sending? 'Men, it’s cool if you push too far because you know she’s just playing shy and wants it in the end.' Ugh, this is exactly the kind of messaging that contributes to our rape culture and should be done away with completely.

Overall, this is an interesting movie for being understated and not quite fitting the Hollywood norm with its slice of life look at four interesting characters who are clearly in need of help of some sort. But their very abnormality leads to some troubling depictions of love, sex, and relationships. It's certainly a good movie for chew over some food for thought, but I'm not sure that I can wholeheartedly recommend it.

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