The great thing about animals is their blank-eyed/blank-slate capacity to mean anything, everything, or—better yet—nothing at all. Dive to the bottom of Moby Dick‘s endless allegorical depths and the fundamental significance of the white whale abides in his embodiment of signification itself. There’s plenty to think about when the donkey hero of Au Hasard Balthazar is understood as a Christ figure, but to my mind the nexus of Bresson’s spiritual allegory has always been that famous exchange of looks between animals at a circus, where Balthazar’s dark, round eye opens a semiotic void into which all interpretation collapses. “The only thing that matters in art,” wrote George Braque, that exacting painter of enigmatic birds, “is the thing you can’t explain.”
Some gnarly existential hurt is tied up with the winged creature in The Hawk Is Dying, and I hoped against hope it would never take flight into easy intelligibility. Until it does, disastrously, in the final reel, this is one seriously wild and deeply wounded effort from writer-director Julian Goldberger.
Paul Giamatti stars as George Gattling, an auto upholsterer in Gainesville, Florida, with hawk issues. To the rapt appreciation of his retarded nephew, Fred (Michael Pitt), he snares the birds in his yard, rears them in the closet of a house he shares with his obese sister, Precious (Rusty Schwimmer), and, with the help of treats and bathetic entreaties, attempts to train them in the art of falconry. The hawks respond by starving themselves to death.
Any rational, well-adjusted person—all of whom appear to have vacated Gainesville—would take this foolish endeavor as inordinately cruel, a passion for pets as twisted as that of the Enumclaw, Washington, horse lovers (more on that, vis-à-vis the ballsy docudrama Zoo, next month). And yet, in the way of small Southern towns, George’s albatross is taken in stride, just another tic in the sticks. It’s probably not the oddest thing going on in a neighborhood home to Betty (Michelle Williams), a pothead psych student who lounges in a bizarre, crypto-bordello flophouse spacing out to hipster electro and booty bass.
I’m not entirely sure what Betty has to do with anything other than filling in Goldberger’s canvas with some funky local color. But then Goldberger is wholly an artist of vibe and atmosphere, as evidenced by Trans, his delicately oblique 1998 debut. That whispering coming-of-age lyric thundered the arrival of a major talent, but seven years on (and some little seen ethnographic documentary later), Goldberger’s follow-up has been greeted with general disappointment, if not derision. No doubt about it, The Hawk Is Dying verges on the ludicrous, but it couldn’t be otherwise. This half-mad cine-Icarus risks a perilous Bressonian ideal: “The greater the success, the closer it verges on failure.”
When a tragedy in the family drives George’s obsession past the point of acceptable idiosyncrasy into full-blown dysfunction, Hawk embarks on a literal Walpurgisnacht. Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski engulfs his images in an oppressive mulch of shadow, while production designer Judy Becker externalizes the dank, boggy emotions of the material with heaps of Spanish moss and shitty carpeting. Composer Jonathan Goldberger scores a slow-drip dirge on obsolete instruments, perfectly keyed to the bruised tones of his brother’s vision.
The crew gets how Goldberger is less concerned with storytelling than sculpting an immersive, essentially non-narrative space—a sinkhole for the viewer to fall into and suffocate. I won’t pretend it makes for a happy night at the cinema, and it may require a leap of faith to succumb to Goldberger’s spell. But I leapt, and found it enthralling up to the point where this legitimately weird movie capitulates to the most conventional catharsis. I’d rather watch Goldberger fail than a hundred others succeed.