The Yellow Handkerchief plays out like someone tried to film the lyrics to one of those pulp-sappy, alt-country songs that play in Hallmark stores and/or Cracker Barrel gift shops. Yellow is a lushly symbolic color, representing everything from cowardice, infection, happiness, friendship, even caution — although most of the time it inspires people to move faster. And if you buy that, I’ve got this lovely film studies degree I’d love to sell you on the back of this here bridge deed. Erin Dignam’s script is allegedly based on Pete Hamill’s novel, but seems more like it was ripped off straight from the Japanese film The Yellow Handkerchief (of Happiness) and gauzily shot by Udayan Prasad. I’d love to make the claim that Prasad and Dignam choked the plot with sentimentality and cloying symbolism, but the truth of the matter is they tried stretching a ten-minute premise into a sparse feature length film. It’s the danger of hammering the three-act structure into fool’s heads: there’s a dozen pages of beginning and dozen pages of ending, and then there’s a whole lot of nothing drifting through the middle. The film’s a road romance about three completely inexplicably coupled strangers wandering around post-Katrina Louisiana with nowhere to be. The journey doesn’t change them as people, rather it hurls them together hurlyburly at the end like Cadbury filling those creme eggs. I suppose there are bound to be some folks who find this kind of fusty, forced corniness to be heart-stoppingly romantic. But those are the same folks who give out toothbrushes at Halloween.
William Hurt does a pretty good watered down version of Robert Duvall as Brett Hanson, a penitent ex-con who’s looking for a ride down to New Orleans. After getting sprung from the hooscow, he sits in a cafe and orders an ice cold beer and watches the exposition. Enter Gordy (Eddie Redmayne), a painfully awkward social misfit with tragic acne and a convertible, failing in his attempts to woo the locals with his claims to be Native American Indian. Meanwhile, one of those locals, Martine (Kristen Stewart), fresh from the embarrassed scorn of a drunken hook-up, snatches Gordy’s hand and wants a ride across the river. Brett finds out that the only way he’s gonna catch a bus down south — to presumably resolve the mystery of the yelling blonde lady haunting his dreams (Maria Bello) — is by hopping the ferry across the river. And so the three meet up at the ferry, jump in the car together, and head off towards nowhere.
What follows is sort of a daytime ghost story of meandering through the desolate waste in Katrina’s wake. Nobody ever outright mentions the hurricane, so I may just be putting my own intuition on that, since the film actually feels like it’s stuck in some sort of time paradox where everything looks like 1970 but people have amenities like cell phones. For a movie that stretches nearly two hours, there’s not a whole lot of character development, unless you count two characters sitting around talking about the whys and whynots of ditching the third. We learn the most about Brett’s story through strange dissonant flashbacks peppered with Hurt looking pained by the memories. After a dust-up at a gas station (one of the few moments where something actually happens, unlike the rest of the film which feels like the location scout for “True Blood” picked awesome brokedown locales and christened them plot points), Brett’s convict past is revealed to the hapless teens and then is his story, still communicated through flashbacks and interspersed with moments of Kristen Stewart looking sad. Even with three strikes, just about any of you folks could parse out the hallmarked clichés of what went wrong and why Brett’s on his way to possibly see her.
The worst part for me was the complete lack of story given to the young lover’s thread of the tale. All we know of Martine is that her father is on the road with a new girlfriend and she doesn’t like it. Other than the cursory glimpse in the beginning, we have no idea what makes Martine tick. Or what it is about her that allows her to have the freedom to basically drive off in a convertible with stranger danger for several days for no apparent reason. Even more unusual is Gordy, who’s a baffling fellow in so many ways. Gordy’s the best part of the flick, this mysterious man-child who pines for affection coupled with a healthy dose of self-mockery. All we know is that Gordy hopped in a convertible and decided to tour this great land of ours, picking Louisiana because he wanted to see the wreckage. He’s a broken person, and I sincerely wished they gave him more flesh because he was the only intriguing part of the picture, and Eddie Redmayne gave the best performance in the film, outshining even William Hurt.
I waited well over an hour before they bothered getting to the point, but I can at least share it with you without it being a spoiler. Brett penned a postcard to his darling May — to the address where she used to live at least — telling her he wanted to see her and if she wanted to see him, to put up the yellow sail on their old sailboat. If he saw that, he’d come by and see her. And if not, he’d know to move on and leave her be. It’s easy to make fun of the overblown and total juvenile sense of romance and true love in Twilight, but by god, this is like the punchline to a motherfucking sea shanty. “If yellow sail ye see, then pussy they’re’ll be. Yellow sail away, a lay ye’ll get nay. Yaargh.”
Of course, the studios would never take such a cynical stance on true love. Which is why, after almost two years on the shelf, they “freaking” all the f-bombs to get in that teen-friendly PG-13 realm of the rarefied Bella-air to hope that the lonelyhearts ravenous appetite for all things Twilight would flock to this seagull shit. Hell, I’ve been there — I saw Vulgar thinking it was a lost Kevin Smith flick. Same with Drawing Flies. Still, even the most diehard Twitard would have to be pretty sparkle-drunk to dig on this. And for every titter from the sea of blue-hairs attending my screening, there were at least as many if not more shuffling and grumbling for their refunds. The Yellow Handkerchief is hardly bad enough to mar anyone’s star. If anything I hope it gets Redmayne some more gigs. But like the boogery snot rag the title implies, you’d be best to toss it in the trash and forget about it.