Three losers set out from a small town in the Louisiana bayou country in search of ... something. Brett (William Hurt), fresh from prison after serving a six-year manslaughter sentence, is weary and defeated and just passing through. Martine (Kristen Stewart), a friendless local teen with a mostly absent single dad, wants to be off, right now, to anyplace else. And Gordy (Eddie Redmayne), an annoying goofus, has the scruffy convertible in which they all hit the road.
"The Yellow Handkerchief" was shot on location in 2007. Its British director, Udayan Prasad, made the most of the picture's small-scale budget (somehow stretching it to cover the top-rank cinematographer Chris Menges), and he has a fine facility for quiet emotional observation. This is a movie that's all about its characters; there's not much else. The only outsize thing about the film is the performances that Prasad managed to draw from his nicely-balanced cast.
Hurt settles into his role as if it were a gray cloud of unspoken loss. The picture is strewn with (sometimes confusing) flashbacks to Brett's life before prison, when he was an itinerant oil-rigger who fell in with a hard-shelled marina owner named May (Maria Bello). Brett, who'd never found a place in the world, suddenly felt an unfamiliar emotion: hope. "I know you," we see him telling May. "Your whole life is in your face." He could even imagine marrying her. But May, heavily scuffed by life herself (in ways we're happily left to intuit), is wary. "I don't want to marry anyone, ever," she says. "But I'm grateful you asked."
Brett divulges his story in bits and pieces as he and Martine and Gordy make their way south, possibly to New Orleans. Slowly, he emerges from his own sorrows to offer what guidance he can to his unlikely new friends. Gordy, a hapless yokel, knows that his geeky babbling makes people uncomfortable — when he left his hometown, everybody was happy to see him go. And Martine's longing for affection is getting mixed up with her emerging sexual impulses. What can an outcast like Brett offer these two in the way of life advice? Not much, maybe; but, as it turns out, enough.
Hurt manages something unusual in this film, turning a character with no talent for talk into a compelling presence mostly with his melancholy eyes and an expressive inwardness. Bello is as gritty as always in conveying May's damaged but not completely demoralized nature. And Stewart, just 17 at the time the movie was shot (several months before filming began on the first "Twilight" picture), navigates the swells of teenage confusion with precocious confidence. She also has scenes with Redmayne (a standout in "Savage Grace" and "The Good Shepherd) that glow with the feeling of two lost souls just beginning to grasp their own possibilities.
The movie's title refers to a postcard Brett sends May after emerging from prison. It's been years since they've seen each other — will she take him back? If so, he writes, she should tie a yellow handkerchief somewhere on the boat where she lives. It's a gooey plot device, and the picture has other problems, too — with its carefully measured pace, it sometimes borders on listlessness. But while the ending is foreordained, it doesn't wrap up the story with a bright happy bow. It's a tribute to the actors that we wonder where their characters might go next. We might want to follow them to find out.
Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Cop Out," also new in theaters this week.
Check out everything we've got on "The Yellow Handkerchief."
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