The first half of The Yellow Handkerchief is the half-movie of the year, and the rest isn’t bad—just more sentimental, more ordinary. The director, Udayan Prasad, has a gift for translating his characters’ thoughts and feelings into point-of-view shots. Watch how beautifully he sustains the emotional line in the first ten minutes, when the aging, largely silent Brett (William Hurt) emerges from a Mississippi Delta prison after six years and makes his way to the center of town. In a small café and gift shop, Brett savors his first beer, taking in everything—including the gawky motormouth Gordy (Eddie Redmayne), who’s trying to strike up conversations with strangers, and the high-strung teenager Martine (Kristen Stewart), who’s getting blown off by the guy she slept with the night before. These three lonely souls somehow end up in Gordy’s old convertible: They cross the river by ferry in a storm and head for post-Katrina New Orleans. Horny Gordy is smitten with Martine, whose eyes are locked on the tight-lipped older man. Brett doesn’t often gaze back. He’s haunted by visions—at first only fleeting images—of a New Orleans woman (a luminous Maria Bello) who might have something to do with why he went to prison.
In interviews, Hurt often seems as if he’s working too hard to come off as a big brain. I wonder if he seized on the role of Brett for the chance to play a man who’s wide open yet too scared to articulate what he feels. The performance is exquisite. Hurt’s hair has receded and with it, I think, some of his actor’s vanity. Brett would like to be less present than he is, to summon a protective fog, but the kids keep trying to draw him out. Stewart is younger and less formed than in her Twilight films. Her character doesn’t develop enough (she turns into a cheerleader for Brett), but she and Redmayne have a touchingly awkward rapport. You’d never know this terrific young actor is a Brit. Gordy claims to be Native American but sounds like he’s from nowhere. What wins your heart is how hard he’s working to forge an identity.
The Yellow Handkerchief’s three road warriors are essentially homeless, and Prayad, working with the great cinematographer Chris Menges, sets them down in a landscape of rusty garages and corroded shacks and storm-lashed boats. The script by Erin Dignam doesn’t dwell on Katrina, but almost every shot suggests a world that might not be there tomorrow. But by the time the three drive over the bridge into New Orleans, the film has gone soft. Some movies are better when characters’ mysterious backstories stay mysterious. But the spell of this one’s first half carries you far, far downriver.
Calculated to enrage and pulling it off like gangbusters, Don Argott’s documentary The Art of the Steal pits the legacy of the late Albert C. Barnes’s Barnes Foundation (which boasts arguably the world’s finest collection of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art) against the social-climbing, philistine, downright Nixonian machinations of Philadelphia’s wealthiest—who gamed the system and pried the collection loose in defiance of Barnes’s legal will. (The film’s villains include the Pew Charitable Trusts, Walter Annenberg, foundation director Bernard C. Watson, and a slew of Philadelphian pols who regard the collection as a cash cow and tourist magnet.) Beyond the outrageous story of the Barnes, The Art of the Steal makes the depressing case that not-for-profit culture attracts a distinct species of greedhead and charlatan, the kind that likes to bask in the radiance in artists’ reflected glory.