Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Yellow Handkerchief: A Journey Small and Strange

Most movies are afraid to be small. People don’t talk about or line up to see small movies. But in the midst of movie culture that rewards excess, The Yellow Handkerchief, directed by Udayan Prasad, dares to be small without a hint of apology.

Part road movie, part old-time country song, the film follows an unlikely threesome’s travels through the backcountry of summer-soaked Louisiana. Martine, an enticing and embittered 15-year-old played by Kristen Stewart, is desperate for escape, which is provided by an awkward 20-something itinerant named Gordy (Eddie Redmayne) and his beat-up convertible. Joining them is Brett (William Hurt), a balding and taciturn just-released ex-convict who lives in a social isolation chamber of his own construction. These aren’t people you would have a coffee date with. They can be impulsive, immature, inconsiderate, and downright mean. Yet the common bonds of loneliness and the quiet optimism of the road join them.

The three begin their trip as total strangers, as mysterious to each other as they are to us. Prasad doesn’t reveal their back-stories, save for some of Brett’s flashbacks about a woman named May (Maria Bello) that only come into focus when he explains them. The directness with which Prasad presents the characters forces us to project our own preconceptions on them, which are then molded by subtle visual cues—the way Brett looks at Martine when he sees her for the first time, the giddiness that comes over Gordy’s face when he gets a female travel companion. While this sense of mystery would appear to increase dramatic tension, the pace and tone of the movie sap it of intended suspense. The overly manicured shots and Eef Bazelay’s score, a sort of Brian Eno does Americana, sooth rather than seethe.

What does keep the viewer engaged at first is the capable acting of the major players. Brett, Martine, and Gordy are quirky outcasts, roles that lend themselves to overacting. But Hurt, Stewart, and Redmayne’s understated performances give the characters a sense of dignity and genuineness. Working with a merely serviceable script, the actors revel in their poignant scenes of silence, like Brett’s first taste of beer in six years. Though they all fit into different sociological archetypes—the ex-convict looking for redemption, the maturing teenager looking for meaning, the young man looking for his place in the world—they are real people with complex issues. We begin to see in them the awkward co-worker or distant family member, or maybe even parts of ourselves.

Unlike most road movies, The Yellow Handkerchief isn’t about the car, or the wild antics, or the setting for that matter. Though the characters are driving toward a post-Katrina New Orleans, the storm is a mere specter, revealing itself through the run-down landscape rather than explicit reference. Prasad is instead much more interested in the dynamics of intimate human relationships rather than how humans interact with the world around them and narrows his shots accordingly. All of the film’s set pieces are oddly devoid of other human presence. When Gordy’s car springs a leak, he pulls over to a grimy old gas station, long since abandoned. As he rummages through the garage looking for ways to fix the car, Martine, frustrated by another setback, complains to Brett about Gordy’s social ineptitude. As her words trail off into the bayou, Brett mutters that she should be patient with him. Alone in the wilderness, without the luxury of a crowd to disappear in, the three begin to realize that despite their mutual strangeness, they are no longer strangers, to each other and to us.

Like the paintings of Edward Hopper that depict the loneliness of a crowd, The Yellow Handkerchief shows the intimacy of isolation. But while Hopper’s paintings strike the viewer with their aggressively peculiar compositions, Prasad’s film retreats in on itself, preferring to revel in its own subtlety. The movie can be so self-absorbed at points that it doesn’t bother to care whether the viewer is really engaged or not.

Ironically, it is on a journey that requires a great deal of self-reliance that Brett, Martine, and Gordy learn that it’s ok to rely on others, that it’s just fine to be small. That this realization should come without fanfare is a given. This movie is too committed to its own smallness to have it any other way.