In The Hawk Is Dying (an '06 Sundance straggler just barely beating the '07 buzz films to the theaters -- never a good sign), Paul Giamatti plays a dispirited, sad sack of a single man who hates his job and life, which is a greater stretch than it would seem. In a departure from similar loser turns in Lady In The Water, Sideways and American Splendor, there's an unnerving current of barely sublimated ferocity and anger here that plays subtle havoc with Giamatti's potentially typecast persona. A lot of unfortunate yelling, crying and general vocal-cord shredding comes with the role -- presumably to serve up some "acting" for those (i.e., Oscar voters) who still believe that bathos trumps subtlety -- but it's another fine turn from an actor who has continually demonstrated his genius for avoiding self-parody.
Unfortunately, it's unlikely anyone will see the performance; even with the bursts of overplaying, Giamatti demonstrates more range than the movie itself. His character's name is George Gattling (as in the gun, plus an extra "t"), which should tell you everything you need to know about his repressed anger issues. Bored with his self-owned auto shop, Gattling has nothing waiting at home besides his grossly overweight sister, Precious (Rusty Schwimmer), and her autistic son Fred (Michael Pitt, seemingly settling in for a long, comfortable career of playing mentally ill types). Under the circumstances, it makes perfect sense that George would take an interest in something completely divorced from his everyday life -- in this case, the ancient art of falconry. George catches hawks, then tries to train them to eat out of his hand; he aims to domesticate them enough for companionship while leaving their awesome flying and hunting skills intact. Training one particular hawk without having it die on him, as the the last few did, involves depriving it of food until it relents; this means Gattling will not eat or sleep either and keep it on his arm at all times, which looks suspiciously like insanity to the outside observer.
The problem isn't the hawk qua hawk -- the latest in a series of captured birds George and Fred have bonded over -- but the metaphorical weight it's made to bear. Rarely has one poor animal (at least one not named Moby Dick) had to do virtually all of a narrative's thematic lifting. Here, the hawk is made to represent, variously:
1) George's repressed masculine anger. The only person simpatico with him besides Frank in the whole first half "is the drunk partier who announces that, "In this age, a man can go his whole life without knowing whether or not he's a coward.” It’s a load of testosterone-induced hogwash that George seems to swallows whole;
2) Freedom with a capital F, as manifested in the ability to fly, protest its captivity and do all of the other things George cannot;
3) George himself. "You're not talking about the bird," one character reproves him, just to make it extra-explicit whenever George’s bonding with the bird gets extra-symbolic;
4) But also Fred, whose cryptic autistic struggles are completely gone only when interacting with the captive hawk, which, in solidarity with Mentally Damaged Movie People everywhere, he can instantly calm without even trying.
It’s a lot of work for one poor aviary specimen. While investing the movie's entire thematic scheme in the form of an animal may have worked in Harry Crews' novel, Julian Goldberger's adaptation and direction are, for the most part, mired in a flatness of tone that would prevent even the simplest metaphor from taking flight. The Hawk Is Dying is a miserable dive into regional unhappiness (in this case, Central Florida) whose command of local color (my favorite detail being the bong with a Confederate flag on it) can't make up for its clunky structure. “It’s all a dead end, son,” Gattling announces, a pronouncement the movie proceeds to demonstrate in earnest, until Gattling finally gets his metaphorical masculine breakthrough. A midlife crisis is a midlife crisis is a midlife crisis.
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