The Yellow Birds Ending Explained: Can You Trust The Truth?

Sunday, 4 June 2023 15:15

Alexandre Moors' "The Yellow Birds" premiered at Sundance in 2017 and received a limited theatrical and video-on-demand release the following year. The film also won the Special Jury Award for cinematography at the festival, and it's easy to see why. "The Yellow Birds" is a haunting look at a never-ending war in a desolate landscape starring Tye Sheridan and Alden Ehrenreich. Both actors give tremendous performances, playing young men whose spirits are crushed by the endless violence and cruelty they're subjected to by the US Army.Like the lyrical, poetic novel on which it's based, "The Yellow Birds" tells its story via a series of flashbacks, constantly cutting back and forth across several timelines. This occasionally makes the film difficult to follow, especially as the plot moves into its endgame, which explains an event that happened earlier in the narrative. Further, the film raises complicated questions about truth and memory, specifically the fallibility of both as they relate to trauma. Who gets to decide what the "truth" is when everyone involved has personally suffered? Must we remember things as they actually happened, or is there space to choose our own recollections of events? And how does the film's ending explore these themes while also revealing what happened to poor Murph?What You Need To Remember About The Plot Of The Yellow BirdsMurph (Tye Sheridan) and Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich) meet at basic training. They're both excellent shots, and they become fast friends, especially when Sergeant Sterling (Jack Huston) takes them both under his wing. At a party for military families, Murph's mother, Maureen (Jennifer Aniston), makes Bartle promise that he'll take care of her son; if anything happens to Murph, she wants Bartle to be the one who tells her.In Iraq, the boys fall apart under the pressures of war. Murph develops a crush on a medic named Jenny (Carrie Alexander), but is too nervous to ask her to dance at the base's Christmas party. Sterling begins to lose it, murdering people in a car and salting the earth as his troops advance. Bartle falls asleep on his feet as a firefight breaks out, and one of his fellow soldiers dies. Murph starts to crumble, too. He's injured when a bomb blows up the car he's traveling in, and while Jenny cares for him, she's injured in an attack on the base.In the present, Bartle returns home, and his mother (Toni Collette) is disturbed by her hollowed-out shell of a son. A news broadcast reveals that Murph is missing, so Maureen tries to visit Bartle. He runs away from home and sleeps under a bridge. After he nearly drowns, the Army's Criminal Investigation Division, which is investigating Murph's case, takes Bartle in.What Happened At The End Of The Yellow Birds?Bartle is in jail. One day, Maureen visits and asks him to explain what happened to her son. After agreeing to speak with her — and only her — Bartle describes the last day of Murph's life, which we see in flashback.While on patrol, the soldiers come across a "body bomb," or a decapitated body lying in the middle of the road. Murph, shell-shocked, won't talk to anyone. The soldiers sweep the area, and Bartle finds Murph sitting in a bombed-out house, watching a woman pick her way through the rubble. As the group prepares to leave, Bartle realizes that Murph hasn't joined them. They search for hours. Eventually, a goat farmer leads Bartle and Sterling to Murph's body. He's been brutalized and castrated, and his eyes have been gouged out. In order to save Murph's mother from the grief of seeing her son in such a state, his comrades decide to "fix it like it never happened," bringing Murph's body to the river and letting him go. "Murph was looking for a way to disappear, and he finally found one," Bartle reflects. "I didn't want to take that away from him."Murph's mother says that she wishes Bartle had let her decide whether or not she could see her son again. Then, she asks Bartle if Murph was ever happy in Iraq. He lies and tells her that, yes, Murph was happy at the Christmas party. Bartle then describes Murph dancing with Jenny, and the film ends with Murph and the medic swaying under swirling red lights.Why Did Bartle Lie To Murph's Mother?In the final moments of "The Yellow Birds," the film becomes a full-on fantasy. We saw the Christmas party early in the film, but Murph was too nervous to talk to Jenny. Further, the party ended horribly, as the base came under attack. So, why does Bartle tell Murph's mother that he was happy in that moment, and that he danced with the girl he liked?The answer is twofold. Earlier, Murph's mother expresses confusion when a friend tells her that she needs to find her truth in order to move on. "Like mine's different than yours," she ponders, "or you've got one and I've got another?" Bartle also has a preoccupation with individualized truth, especially how it relates to memory. In his opening narration, he muses, "I wish the truth were different than what I remembered."The end of the movie brings these two ideas together. Bartle gives Murph's mother an alternate memory in this moment, choosing to let her believe in a different "truth" — that her son was something other than miserable, fearful, and regretful. While this may seem like a kindness, it's also a haunting choice. Maureen has just told Bartle that it shouldn't have been his decision whether or not she saw her son again. As a result, we're left with a question: Isn't it possible that she would rather know the truth?How Does The End Play Into The Yellow Birds' Title?Why is a movie about the harrowing effects of war and the impermanence of truth called "The Yellow Birds"? There are a few reasons, and taken together they offer a metaphor through which we can better understand the film's characters. At the beginning of the movie, a group of recruits recite a classic Army cadence about a yellow bird. Though they don't reach the ending, the first verse often concludes, "I lured him in with a piece of bread, and then I smashed his little head." It's a rhyme about finding something beautiful and crushing it for the simple, cruel fun of it. There's a connection there to the way that the military stomps any and all sensitivity out of its soldiers.In addition, Bartle's mother tells Maureen that it's not actually true that, if you touch a baby bird, the mother will reject it. This comes into play at the end of the film, when a distraught Maureen learns that Bartle decided to hide Murph's body. "I didn't want you to remember him like I do," he tells her. She replies, "That's not your decision to make." In other words, this mother bird would never have rejected her chick. The title, then, is about military families' unending love, even as their children are forever changed by the horrors of war.What Has The Director Of The Yellow Birds Said About The Ending?Director Alexandre Moors has spoken about why he and the rest of the team behind "The Yellow Birds" decided on the movie's shuffled-up timeline, explaining that they wanted the film's confusing chronology to reflect the mind-numbing effects of war. "It took us a moment because we tried a linear version of the film," he told Awards Daily. "We also tried an even more deconstructed version than the final cut. We finally found a version where the viewer was left a little confused. Since the film touches on PTSD and the idea of war as a thing that is everlasting in America." Moors has also talked about the importance of the Radiohead song that closes the film. While speaking with ReelTalker, he reflected, "The Radiohead track was already playing when we were filming it, although it was a different Radiohead track, but I already knew that it was going to be something exactly along that emotional call." Fittingly, the song that plays over the final dance scene is called "Exit Music (For a Film)," and the song's lyrics speak to the movie's emotional, metaphorical arc. "Sing us a song, a song to keep us warm," Thom Yorke croons as Bartle tells Maureen a tale that will, hopefully, provide her some comfort.The Yellow Birds' Alternate EndingAlternate endings sometimes help us understand what a film is going for. However, according to director Alexandre Moors, "The Yellow Birds" was always going to end this way. As he said to ReelTalker, "David Lowery, in his original screenplay, came up with that ... resolution, that ending. ... It's a little bit ambivalent. ... When you [interpret it], it becomes very strong emotionally." Kevin Powers' original book, though, ends differently. The novel jumps ahead in time, when Bartle is in prison for covering up Murph's death. Maureen still visits, but in the book, she's the one who tells a story. Bartle's mom describes how she reacted when she finally learned that Murph was dead. Maureen doesn't ask Bartle to describe her son's passing, and he doesn't lie to her in return. The book concludes even further in the future, with Bartle living as Murph once planned to: in a cabin away from society, still trying to sift through his memories of the war. "I wish I could find an order that makes sense," Bartle says at the beginning of the film; at the end of the book, he's obsessed with putting his memories on a timeline, trying to come to terms with the fact that he can't get the order of events right in his mind.Read this next: The 30 Greatest War Films Of All Time, RankedThe post The Yellow Birds Ending Explained: Can You Trust the Truth? appeared first on /Film.


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