We don't ask for much out of a film like The Yellow Handkerchief--a few tears and a few smiles, that's about all--but it can't even deliver on those modest goals. Picturesquely directed by Udayan Prasad, it fancies itself a moving road drama with a little something to tell us about life and love and so on, but it never gets out of the gate; from the very beginning, it feels like such an obvious construct that we don't buy a word of it, and nothing that follows is particularly convincing either. It doesn't feel like anything remotely connected with reality; it's the stuff of sudsy TV movies and bad books.
William Hurt, sporting an outstanding convict mustache, plays Brett, who is being released from prison after a six-year bit as the picture begins. He wanders into a nearby café/store for a beer and to figure out a way down to New Orleans, and observes Gordy (Eddie Redmayne) trying to pick up Martine (Kristen Stewart), who takes him up on his offer for a ride in an attempt to make a boy who spurned her jealous. They cruise down to the river, where Brett is waiting for the ferry; Martine, improbably enough, asks Brett to join them, so she's not alone with Gordy.
I should mention that Martine is 15 years old, and Gordy is only a few years older, so of course they'd invite an old dude with a convict mustache into their car, right? Well, they would in the movie universe, where three disparate characters must be assembled for the road trip where lessons are learned and truths are revealed and so on. If that's not enough of a cliché for you, we've also got the device of the Gradually Revealed Flashback (or the GRF, as it's called in the parlance); Brett's crime is shown first in flashing images and out-of-context moments, which are slowly revealed and connected the further into the story we get. A hack screenwriter will tell you it's an inventive and evocative way to get into a character's head, but it's really just a way to use a tired device for cheap suspense.
Between his flashbacks, we follow the old timer, the troubled young girl, and the oddball young guy on their little journey, ticking off the car troubles (they drive an old convertible, of course) and run-ins with locals from the moment they appear over the horizon. We keep waiting for Erin Dignam's trite script to give the characters some dimension, but we wait in vain; they stick to their stock types. Redmayne fares the worst--Gordy is a loathsome, obnoxious creation, the kind of character capable of a line like "You're so pretty when you do certain stuff... kind of makes me horny." What a charmer! We don't buy the late developments between Gordy and Martine, because he doesn't appear to have any additional layers for her to discover and like--it's a relationship of narrative convenience, perfectly in line with the loudly grinding gears of the closing sequences.
Is there anything to recommend here? Well, the photography is lovely (the pic is lensed by Chris Menges, whose credits include Dirty Pretty Things, The Good Thief, and The Three Burials of Melquaides Estrada). And some of the performances are worth seeing. Maria Bello does the best she can, though she's mostly acting in fragments, some of them befuddling; I'm still not sure what the hell we're supposed to think she's thinking in the scene after Brett says he wants to marry her. Kristen Stewart is engaging enough (her success in the Twilight films is presumably why we're seeing the film at all; it played Sundance clear back in January of 2008), but she keeps reaching into the same bag of tricks--the way she flips her hair, chews her lip, etc.
William Hurt is the best thing in the picture, relaxed, believable, just plain good. He has a close-up near the end of the film in which so much is happening on his face, you want to stop the movie and make sure you have a chance to take it all in--the shifts and thoughts flicker across his face subtly but perceptively, a sort of thirty-second lesson in great film acting. It's such a good moment, you wish it were part of a film that deserved it.