A lesser actor than William Hurt would just let his mustache do the work in The Yellow Handkerchief. That sad little droop looks less like an element of self-expression than a downward-sloping ballast for a mouth exhausted from frowning all the time. Hurt brings more than just meaningful facial hair to the film, however. Playing a recently paroled ex-con prone to painful flashbacks to better times, he suggests more depths than Erin Dignam’s script requires. (The story comes from a 1971 Pete Hamill piece based on the same well-traveled folk tale that inspired Tony Orlando And Dawn’s “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree.”) Hurt broods quietly but effectively as he reflects on the life he left behind when he went to prison for six years. When director Udayan Prasad (My Son The Fanatic) lets him drift his way through atmospheric small-town Louisiana locations, the film seems on the verge of capturing something profound. Then it reveals a bit more of its underdeveloped story, or shifts its attention to Hurt’s juvenile sidekicks, Eddie Redmayne and Twilight’s Kristen Stewart (playing a tough-but-wounded 15-year-old), and the spell breaks.
Thrown together by heavy rain, a shared desire to move south, and the conventions of the road movie, Hurt and Stewart wind up in the back of a vintage convertible restored and driven by Redmayne, an outgoing but terminally awkward amateur photographer/computer repairman/self-proclaimed Native American who makes no attempt to hide his crush on Stewart. As the trio moves toward their destination, stopping at seemingly every picturesque abandoned gas station or ruined church along the way, they open up to one another about their lives.
Both Hurt and Maria Bello, revealed in flashbacks as the love of Hurt’s life, elevate their thinly conceived characters. The same can’t be said of Stewart—who appears noticeably younger, thanks to the years the film spent on the shelf, years during which she developed a more seasoned variation on the sulkiness seen here—and especially Redmayne, whose spastic performance falls somewhere between Justin Bartha in Gigli and Eddie Deezen in, well, anything. Hurt’s story, measured out in spoonfuls, feels as familiar as it is insubstantial once it arrives in full. It’s nice to see a film unafraid to be quiet and sensitive, but one good gust of coastal breeze would blow this one away.