The Yellow Handkerchief: An Oddly Enticing Road Trip

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From left: William Hurt, Kristen Stewart and Eddie Redmayne in The Yellow Handkerchief

The Yellow Handkerchief is one of those small movies that seems to have a great deal going against it — implausibility of action, a contrived caginess and a dangerous need to be regionally evocative — but somehow manages to win you over, sucking you into its peculiar mood.

In a quietly divine performance, William Hurt plays Brett, a man with no one to greet him when he gets out of prison. He walks to a café, orders a beer, sits down to write a letter and observes the town tartlet (she's very young) get rejected by a boy who has obviously used her. Martine (Kristen Stewart) spins on her heel, lights on Gordy (Eddie Redmayne), the first male she spots in her age range, and offers to go off with him instead. Maybe there's a party, or a festival across the river — it's all a bit unclear — but their "date" begins by hopping into Gordy's old convertible and heading for what we presume to be the Mississippi. The film (releasing nationwide over the month of March) is set in the fall of 2007, and there's talk of all the damage from Hurricane Katrina that's awaiting them downstream.

Going off with Gordy is not exactly sweet revenge for Martine. He's been pestering everyone in the café, and he's about as sexy as Pee-wee Herman. Even the kid who dumped Martine looks baffled by her desperation. It takes her about five minutes to realize her mistake, and when she does, she asks Brett, who is also waiting for the ferry, to join them. Thus begins a road trip of Really Bad Ideas: young girl with daddy issues, ex-con and weirdo on an anywhere-but-here journey. That New Orleans emerges as one possible destination makes perfect sense. It's as wrecked and uncertain as these travelers.

Given how appealing Stewart is, with her bravado masking the permanent vulnerability of a good heart, the prospect of seeing her meet some grisly fate at the hands of her companions is even gloomier than counting how many more Twilight movies she has to make. Director Udayan Prasad keeps hyping the possibility by cutting to unsettling flashbacks featuring Maria Bello as Brett's former boss and crush. Is Brett wounded or the wounder? That boilerplate suspense technique is too obviously manipulative to have the creepy power of Gordy's resentful glances.

Sometimes an actor is naturally just strange enough, whether in looks or something deeper within, to carry off a role that would look like mannered showboating by anyone else. Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jr. have that talent, and so does Crispin Glover, although he doesn't seem capable of swinging into normalcy. It's too early to tell what Redmayne's (The Good Shepherd, The Other Boleyn Girl) full range is, but he's definitely got the gift of riveting strangeness. You start out thinking his Gordy is the village idiot; then, as this ghostly pale, freckled redhead goes on and on about being Native American, you decide he's a fabulist. Watching him furtively stuff crayfish in his mouth, you add compulsive to the list.

The main consistency is that Redmayne grips as much as he repels. You want to grab his chin — Gordy is always in some sort of awkward motion — and hold him still so you can look into those clear, clean eyes of his and figure him out. Prasad directs to this unnerving fluidity; in the first scene in which we get a real sense of Gordy's character, he and Martine are talking in the backseat of the convertible as it whips along the highway and the wind tears the words out of their mouths. It seems Gordy needs the world to move faster than he does in order to simply be.

Later in the movie, someone asks why Martine got in Gordy's car in the first place. "To try to make someone care about me," she answers. Such self-knowledge is a fine thing, and the movie is pleased enough with itself to suggest that she's gained this in the time she spends with Brett and Gordy. Or at least she's learned to voice the truth. On paper that might have made me scoff — Martine is such a sketch of the bad girl in need — but Hurt and Redmayne sold me on the notion. As for the yellow handkerchief of the title, I'd have dismissed it as a cheesy device if it weren't for the fact that I'm still cherishing the eloquence of Hurt's silent marvel when he finally sees it, fluttering across the gray Southern sky.