The Hurt locker: William Hurt plays Brett, with Kristen Stewart as Martine, and Eddie Redmayne as Gordy in The Yellow Handkerchief.

Hurt and Belief in 'The Yellow Handkerchief'

Dennis Harvey March 5, 2010

If the usual line about William Hurt is that he looked to become a major star in the 1980s, but didn’t fulfill that promise, in more recent years it’s become clearer, that Hurt probably didn’t want to become that kind of star. He certainly hasn’t run his career like someone desperate to get to the top and stay there–at least not for a couple decades. So, while he’s stayed busy in the interim, it comes as a bit of a surprise to see him take charge of a whole movie, as is the case with new indie The Yellow Handkerchief. Though after two Twilight movies his co-star Kristen Stewart might be much the bigger marquee star, it’s Hurt who dominates here, albeit quietly. Rather like Jeff Bridges in the concurrent sleeper Crazy Heart, this is an opportunity to appreciate a very good actor too often taken for granted, at the top of his form.

In Handkerchief he plays Brett Hanson, whom we first meet being released from a Louisiana prison after several years’ incarceration for manslaughter, the circumstances of which crime are explained much later. Balding, with droopy mustache, Brett is a large man so drawn into himself that one guesses he’d choose literal invisibility if he could. He slips back into “freedom” as if afraid it might notice he doesn’t belong there.

With a destination in mind–though it takes the whole film for him to reveal it–Brett accepts a ride from two teenagers in a swampy small town. Though the only reason he’s invited is because local 15-year-old Martine (Stewart) doesn’t want to be left alone with barely older, just-passing-through weirdo Gordy (Eddie Redmayne). And the only reason she’s accepted the latter’s invitation is to spite a local boy who’s just brushed her off.

Martine finds a reluctant father figure in the gentle ex-con (not that she knows he’s one at first), whose presence is resented by Gordy as a barrier between him and this girl he barely knows but is crushing on. (One gets the sense that Gordy’s spazzing hormones might lunge toward any female in reach, however.) The three are all discordantly mismatched loners.

Yet their separate isolations share a painful common ground: Nobody seems to be waiting for, or missing, any of them. Gordy is road-tripping on the run from whatever formative circumstances made him into a socially awkward, off-putting “freak,” then insisted he’d never be able to change. Even Martine feels like the runt of the litter—as severe weather washes out bridges in this swamp country, stretching the trio’s adventure from an afternoon to several days. She’s perpetually disappointed that a silent cell phone indicates her family hardly notices her absence, let alone worries about it.

Out of initially idle curiosity, the two youths coax out of Brett his own backstory, revealed in flashbacks throughout the film. It reveals his pre-prison past as an oil-rig worker who found–then lost–some measure of unexpected happiness with May (Maria Bello), a flinty woman whose prior relationships seem to have left her expecting the worst from men. It was a volatile, fragile union unlikely to survive major adversity, which it soon got in spades.

Based on a Pete Hamill story that ran in Reader’s Digest in 1972 (a year before Tony Orlando & Dawn had a deathlessly hokey #1 radio hit with “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” no doubt inspired by that story), The Yellow Handkerchief might easily have turned into sentimental muck. As it is, the ending is a little hard to take–you might find yourself choked up while hating yourself for it–and there’s a basic suspension of disbelief required in accepting that Brett, Martine and Gordy would ever last more than five minutes in each others’ irksome company. (Also, Brett is the kind of wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly ex-con that exists a lot more frequently in movies than real life.)

But this first American feature by Indian-English director Udayan Prasad (My Son the Fanatic), written by Erin Dignam (who in 1997 also penned Loved, one of the many little-seen projects Hurt appeared in after the 1980s), knows how to downplay contrivance until it almost disappears into the relaxed rhythms of a character-focused road flick set in bayou country. This one is very post-Katrina, the still debris-strewn landscape and falling-down structures a metaphorical reflection of damaged lives that have almost given up on any hope of salvage.

While playing a somewhat bratty type, Stewart sheds most of her familiar mannerisms here. The British Redmayne, usually cast in period and/or upper-crust roles (Savage Grace, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, The Other Boleyn Girl), settles thoroughly into an ultra-awkward stalled adolescent part that might easily have become a caricature. But the film’s center of gravity is Hurt, who is fully engaged by Brett–a good thing and no small relief, since this actor’s internalized nature can sometimes curdle into what looks like simple passivity, if not outright disinterest.

That was too often the case in the last 20 years, when he seemed to willingly slip from being a movie star to being a variably leading or supporting actor choosing films seemingly because they just looked interesting. Thus he worked with a fascinating assortment of directors including Istvan Szabo, Chantal Akerman, Zeffirelli, Spielberg, Anthony Minghella, Wim Wenders, Wayne Wang, Sean Penn, Woody Allen and Lea Pool–but sometimes seemed barely more committed to those projects than to such paycheck gigs like Lost in Space, The Incredible Hulk, or works by such auteurs as Nora Ephron and M. Night Shyamalan.

It was indeed hard at times not to think Hurt had lost his way, even if he showed no signs of missing the name-above-title baggage that came with his celebrated first decade onscreen. Back then he’d starred in some of the most adventurous American movies of a period when the industry otherwise began heading in another, entirely wrong direction: Movies like Altered States, Body Heat, Broadcast News, The Accidental Tourist and Kiss of the Spider Woman. (Though in hindsight his Oscar for the latter seems like a classic case of rewarding flamboyant miscasting.)

If his Oscar-nominated turn as a mob boss in Cronenberg’s 2005 A History of Violence was startling precisely because it was all the things we don’t expect from Hurt–extroverted, bold, funny–his work in Yellow Handkerchief reprises the best attributes of his best-known 1980s performances.

Brett’s lifetime of disappointment (particularly in himself) is defined by the bruised look behind his squinting eyes rather than any confessional dialogue. He’s an acute listener and observer, but skittish about intervening or commenting on what he sees. He carries himself with the awkwardness of someone who figures he owes the world too big an apology to actually deliver, and as a result hopes he can just pass unnoticed. You can almost imagine him disappearing whole into the bayou’s overripe thickness (beautifully shot by Chris Menges) by sheer will. If The Yellow Handkerchief’s final redemption is a tad hard to swallow in credibility terms, it’s nonetheless something Hurt makes you want to believe in.